Byline: Meghan Feir Walker
For many Americans, placing food on the table has become a more difficult undertaking.
Supply chain backlogs and skyrocketing costs for gas, food, goods and services have produced the highest inflation in 40 years. This has affected the daily choices of almost every American consumer.
These factors, combined with an ever-growing population in America and fewer people choosing to farm for a living, are placing the state of food production and availability on a precarious precipice.
Despite sobering stats and a gloomy forecast, economic situations like this also provide a perfect opportunity for reassessment and innovation.
Ready to take on this gargantuan challenge, Grand Farm Director Brian Carroll and his colleagues have established two clear missions: To promote the resources and talent of the Fargo area and to help solve the world’s food-production crisis through more autonomous systems, practices and sustainable farming.
Shooting for the moon
Carroll, a proud Fargo native, helped conceive the idea of the farm of the future in 2017 immediately following a presentation by Barry Batcheller at 1 Million Cups, a national program for entrepreneurs.
Batcheller, a speaker at the day’s event, is well known throughout the agriculture industry. He founded Phoenix International, which eventually became John Deere Electronics Solutions, and he founded Appareo, which was recently acquired by AGCO.
With a strong background in entrepreneurial success and agriculture technology, Batcheller told the audience that every community should declare its major to the world.
Carroll and his colleagues were so struck by Batcheller’s message that an audacious idea emerged.
After speaking more with his friends at Emerging Prairie, an organization that supports the Fargo-Moorhead region’s entrepreneurial ecosystem, Carroll said they all quickly agreed that Fargo’s major had to be in agriculture. After all, the Fargo-Moorhead area, the Red River Valley and the prairie are synonymous with farming and food production.
“Grand Farm answered that question for this region,” Carroll said. “I truly believe that the Red River Valley and Fargo are centers of excellence when it comes to agriculture. When you have conversations with organizations that are in the AgTech world, everyone recognizes that. I think that’s our strength.”
This initiative would aim to spur on the farm of the future and showcase the region’s potential by fusing together the power of agriculture and technology.
Formed by Carroll and Greg Tehven, the Co-founder and CEO of Emerging Prairie, the friends planned on creating a collaborative model. This model would utilize the unique strengths and focuses of various partner organizations while working toward a common vision.
Carroll and his then intern, Malachi Petersen, immediately got to work to create a presentation that would spread interest, awareness and enthusiasm for this burgeoning idea to area businesses and organizations.
“I did what I do best. I created a PowerPoint,” Carroll said. “We came up with this concept of a big, hairy, audacious goal and asked what it would take for us to power the farm of the future. We put that vision out there and were inspired by JFK with the moonshot speech. We wanted to get people energized and excited.”
The men quickly gathered a group of local leaders in commerce and industry and presented their plan. Interest and excitement surrounding the possibilities immediately began to bubble up.
“The very next day, Kevin and Stacy Biffert donated 40 acres of farmland,” Carroll said.
Thanks to that initial land donation from the Bifferts, the team had their Grand Farm test site ready to use for future research projects.
Alleviating five major challenges
After this promising start, Carroll and his team quickly applied for a small business administration grant for regional innovation clusters. While they were turned down, this helped them identify the five major challenges Grand Farm would eventually alleviate.
1: Growing population, growing hunger
When Grand Farm identified five key challenges they were determined to address, the first was the growing population in many areas of the world.
“The first challenge we really identified was that we need to increase our efficiency and our productivity from an agriculture standpoint in order to feed the growing population,” Carroll said.
By Dec. 1, 2021, the total U.S. population was estimated to be 331,893,745, and roughly 30 million adults and 12 million children already lived in food-insecure homes.
According to the American Farm Bureau Federation, “The global population is expected to increase by 2.2 billion by 2050, which means the world’s farmers will have to grow about 70 percent more food than what is now produced.”
As prices and shortages continue to grow, so will the hunger problem.
2: Lack of financial support
A difficulty that often affects startups in the Fargo area is the lack of venture capital available to them in their early years.
“A lot of the time they have to go to the East Coast, the West Coast, or large metropolitan areas in order to find venture capital to finance their operations,” Carroll said.
3: The growing popularity of automated jobs
The team’s third challenge was to equip the public with necessary skills for the future as a growing number of jobs become automated.
Through Emerging Digital Academy, a 20-week, immersive coding bootcamp, a part of the solution has already been created. The accelerated academy answered the need for more accessible, flexible software development training.
“We recognize that in the future, technology is driving a lot of the new jobs that are out there,” Carroll said. “Everything is going through a digital transformation. Agriculture is no different. We’re going to have to quickly up-skill people so they are equipped to have jobs in the future.”
In 2020, the Emerging Digital Academy was awarded a $50,000 investment gift through the Fueling Our Future initiative. The program was started by the Fargo Moorhead West Fargo Chamber of Commerce and the Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Center (GFMEDC) Corporation Boards, along with public and private sector leaders.
The academy’s purpose fit perfectly into the initiative’s three areas of focus that support local communities and their future: “People” (workforce development), “prosperity” (economic development), and “place” (community assets/quality of life).
4: Fewer farmers
With a growing population and fewer people choosing to farm, there’s been a clear shift in the farming workforce. This challenge is particularly specific to the demographics of the Fargo-Moorhead area and the Midwest.
“Farms are getting larger, especially within our region, but the number of people that are doing farm work is getting smaller. There are fewer in that pool.”
By providing easier, more efficient and intuitive technology and insight for farmers to use, their overwhelming workload can be made more manageable and their conditions more favorable.
5: Farm accidents
Farm safety is another area that poses a threat to its workers, and Grand Farm was determined to address this issue of immeasurable importance. The danger and frequency of farm accidents continues to affect thousands of farmers and their families across the world.
In the U.S., 60 to 70 per 100,000 farmers are killed on the job annually, according to the National Agricultural Safety Database, and 33 percent of farmers get injured every year with 3 percent of these injuries resulting in permanent disability.
The International Labour Organization also states that at least 170,000 agriculture workers are fatally injured, reinstating the need for more safety solutions.
Addressing pain points
Taking these five challenges and developing a strategy and a roadmap, the group knew they were addressing pain points every farmer and entrepreneur has experienced.
“The strategy is built around developing a world-class ecosystem, bringing thought leaders from all over the world into this region, and connecting people to create a network,” Carroll said. “That’s what Emerging Prairie was designed for, to celebrate and connect the entrepreneurial ecosystem. With Grand Farm, we want to do that in agriculture, too.”
From the start, Grand Farm aimed to create a condition for organizations to work together in a collaborative way and bring the private and the public sectors together.
“We have an opportunity in North Dakota to do things in a low-risk environment. We can adopt technology at a faster rate,” Carroll said. “We created this five-year roadmap on those five strategies and asked for support from the community.”
To further advance their plan, the group reached out and asked for letters of support. Within three days, Carroll received every letter back.
“We could tell the community was really excited about it.”
Sowing seeds for the future
Since its inception, Grand Farm has been through a whirlwind of developments, but its main mission has never wavered.
From the 40 acres of donated land to the participation and support from other partner organizations and researchers, Grand Farm has already made a distinct impression on the community and beyond.
In a true collaborative fashion, the Grand Farm Initiative utilizes the various strengths of additional teams from area businesses, organizations and universities to carry out its mission.
“We’re working with people that are really trying to match purpose with passion, people that are really excited about the topic of agriculture, and they want to advance it and make a difference,” Carroll said. “The most fun part of this is working with all these different teams. We’re getting the best effort and tapping into that energy. For me, it’s energizing. I know it is for our team as well.”
One of the first area partnerships Grand Farm formed was with GFMEDC, an organization that supports economic growth and helps people and organizations flourish through retention, expansion, attraction, and new company development.
“We think of ourselves as extensions of other teams, so when we’re working with our partners, we consider ourselves part of that team,” Carroll said. “The GFMEDC is no different, and they’ve always been a partner of Grand Farm.”
The two organizations evaluate their strategies to team up in interlocking missions.
“We look at their strategy and our strategy and look for opportunities for that collaboration to occur.”
While their projects and focuses may vary, the unified goal of every partnership to solve agricultural challenges throughout the world is the North Star that guides their every decision.
Grand Farm currently facilitates over 300 projects with their partner organizations that demonstrate, develop, research, or validate agriculture technology. It also hosts five signature tracks, which focus programmatic efforts on: cybersecurity, autonomous vehicles, sustainability, traceability, and space agriculture. Each area’s mission is to remedy pain points and unearth innovation within the agriculture industry.
From thinking of tangible ways to improve the supply chain and traceability segment to bringing autonomous logistics to agriculture, these signature projects are the main endeavors Grand Farm and their partners are working on to improve modern-day farming.
“By creating this environment, this open platform of all these groups is coming together,” Carroll said. “It’s only created more energy.”
In May of 2022, Grand Farm and Casselton Economic Development announced a permanent location for the Grand Farm Innovation Facility in Casselton, N.D. This new area provides more resources and acreage for Grand Farm and partners’ ever-growing AgTech projects, prototyping and research undertakings.
Acquiring the funding
One of Grand Farm’s first big breaks came when Senator John Hoeven brought the United States Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue to launch Grand Farm. North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum and local leaders were also in attendance, creating even more buzz around the endeavor.
Along with receiving this support from government officials, two years after the idea sprouted, Microsoft invested $1.5 million into the Grand Farm test site, Emerging Digital Academy, and Plug and Play in 2019.
According to Taya Spelhaug, North Dakota TechSpark Manager for Microsoft, the company is eager to advance technology within the agriculture industry.
“We believe meaningful innovation will happen when farmers are a part of the solution,” said Spelhaug. “Grand Farm is located in the heart of ag country, and we know the growers’ voices are a key component.”
Spelhaug saw the potential in Grand Farm and other Emerging Prairie ventures from the beginning. The TechSpark initiative she leads in the Fargo Microsoft branch is part of the company’s national civic program that aims to spur on greater economic opportunity and job creation through on-the-ground partnerships with local communities.
“Fargo was chosen to be a TechSpark location not just because of our Microsoft location, but because of the technological advancements, agriculture industry and political climate around advancing technology in our state,” Spelhaug said. “We are tremendously pleased with our partnership with Grand Farm and Emerging Digital Academy.”
This boost of financial support was vital to the initiative’s success.
“Microsoft’s TechSpark program made the Grand Farm one of their signature projects,” Carroll said. “They helped with the early funding of it and provided us an opportunity to build a team to do the formation.”
Since that initial investment from Microsoft, Grand Farm also received a $10 million matching grant from the state of North Dakota in February 2022 to advance agriculture technology, which has only furthered their bold vision.
As Grand Farm and numerous other businesses are discovering, the Fargo-Moorhead-West Fargo area is rife with promise, possibility and potential. Staying true to their roots in growing the world’s food while embracing the technological future can produce mass benefits for the community and around the globe.
For more information on Grand Farm’s vision, projects and progress, visit their website at grandfarm.com