Innovation that has impacted the world
How farming and technology have thrived in the Red River Valley
For generations, the rich soil of the Red River Valley has drawn farmers and their families to its promising plains. And while the area is known for its flourishing fields, it should also be known for its innovation.
Over the decades, the region surrounding Fargo-Moorhead has made its mark on the world through advancements in agriculture, machinery, manufacturing and technology. Successful companies like Bobcat, Steiger Tractors, Concord, Amity Technology, Bushel, Phoenix International (which became John Deere) and many others have planted deep roots in the area. The branches of their success have extended far beyond their local communities and reached countries thousands of miles away.
The Red River Valley: An Epicenter of farming and technology
Howard Dahl is a well-known name in the agriculture and machinery industries. From Bobcat, Steiger, Concord and Amity Technology, it’s difficult to describe how monumental of an effect Dahl and his family’s products have had throughout the world.
From his farm near Gwinner, N.D., Dahl’s grandfather, E.G. Melroe, started the Melroe Manufacturing Company in 1947 where he created a windrow pickup that greatly improved the quality of harvesting for small grains. He also created a harrow that was used extensively for seedbed finishing.
By the time Melroe passed away in 1955, Melroe Manufacturing Company was North Dakota’s largest employer in manufacturing, but his legacy of successful farming equipment wouldn’t end there.
In 1958 at the Minnesota State Fair, Les Melroe, E.G. Melroe’s son, was impressed by a three-wheeled loader being shown by Louie and Cy Keller who were blacksmiths from Rothsay, Minn. The idea for the loader came from a nearby turkey farmer who was tired of cleaning out his turkey barns with a wheelbarrow and a shovel.
The Melroe family made a deal with the Keller brothers to move to Gwinner and work with a team of engineers to continue developing its design. After much testing and many design changes, in 1962, the M440 Melroe Bobcat was born, the world’s first skid-steer loader.
The Bobcat skid-steer loader, long known as North Dakota’s signature product, has been one of the best-selling and most impactful inventions in farming, construction and landscaping history.
Although the family sold the Bobcat company in 1969, Bobcat continues to supply the world’s demand for easily maneuverable machinery.
Over the years, the invention of the Bobcat eventually made compact equipment soar to a $11.6 billion global industry. Their North American headquarters are located in West Fargo, N.D., and their products are now designed and manufactured in North Dakota, Minnesota, other U.S. states and countries around the world.
In the early 1970s, Les Melroe and Eugene Dahl (Howard Dahl’s father) purchased Steiger Tractor and grew it from $2 million in sales to $105 million in five years. Later that decade, Howard Dahl and his brother Brian started Concord, Inc., which became the leading U.S. manufacturer of air seeders. The company was sold to Case in 1996, and that same day, Amity Technology was created for the production and sale of sugar beet harvesting equipment.
“My brother Brian and I often say we basically stand on the shoulders of our grandfather, father and uncles who built such significant businesses. We were able to watch and learn,” Dahl said.
While their business ventures haven’t been without hardships and trying economic times, the Dahl and Melroe families put North Dakota on the map for revolutionizing machinery. Along the way, they’ve inspired many other entrepreneurs and companies to plant their dreams in the region as well.
Inspiration for generations to come
In a small NDSU dorm room in 2010, 21-year-old Jake Joraanstad was hard at work developing his first software. He combined forces with fellow NDSU student Ryan Raguse, and as juniors in college, they started Myriad Mobile, a company focused on native mobile software development.
Five years later, Raguse had the realization that the industry needed to digitize scale tickets, the main receipts for grain delivery, after helping out on his family farm. From there, Joraanstad and Raguse saw that as an opportunity to pivot their consulting business into agricultural software products.
In 2017, they launched Bushel, the industry’s first automated software platform for providing tickets, contracts, cash bids and more.
Over the years, Bushel has grown exponentially as they continue to drive productivity and profitability for agriculture by connecting the supply chain with digital tools that streamline operations. They currently employ 180 employees across North Dakota, Minnesota and the United States.
Every day, over 2,600 grain and ag retail facilities and 110,000 farmers across the U.S. and Canada use Bushel tools. The Bushel platform offers ways to view information and engage digitally through signing contracts, making offers to sell grain, and facilitating payments between farmers, grain buyers, ag retailers, protein producers and food companies.
Before they became the success they are today, Joraanstad’s dreams were encouraged by seeing the examples of leaders who came before him.
Just as Dahl was inspired by his family legacy in manufacturing and machinery to manage and build his own companies, Joraanstad was inspired by business giants like Dahl and North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum.
“One of the most motivating people to follow when I was starting out was Governor Doug Burgum who built Great Plains software. It’s one of the few companies that told the story of what they did, and it was inspiring for entrepreneurs,” Joraanstad said. “Then I got to meet Howard along the way and learn about his story. He’s another impressive example, and Howard supported us and a lot of others.”
Whether the industry is in agriculture, software, a merging of the two, or another industry, learning how others made it on such a large scale has inspired countless entrepreneurs.
“Observing others who have built great companies gives people some self-confidence,” Dahl said. “In the early years, when Doug Burgum was fighting to grow Great Plains software, he used to say that the history of Bobcat inspired him. You see that you can build a great global company from Fargo, and you get the sense that if somebody else can do it, you can too. I think success breeds success.”
Stories of success breed success
To spur on the efforts of other entrepreneurs, Joraanstad co-created a regional non-profit called Emerging Prairie and StartupBREW Fargo as support for burgeoning businesses. Focused on startups, technology and innovation, Emerging Prairie serves anyone interested in being a part of the entrepreneurial community.
“Success breeds success, but you have to start by telling the stories. We realized that part of the problem was that we had to first talk about the success we’ve had in North Dakota,” Joraanstad said. “In North Dakota, we don’t brag a lot, so I talk a lot about all the things that have been done here because we’ve built incredible things. Our point was to encourage people to tell their stories.”
Spreading inspiration has become one of Joraanstad’s missions.
Every Wednesday morning, entrepreneurs are spotlighted at StartupBREW Fargo where they tell their stories, motivating, encouraging and inspiring one another.
“It’s a way for people to learn they can be successful in the Fargo area,” Joraanstad said. “There are hundreds of entrepreneurs starting their businesses here because they’re hearing others tell their stories and seeing success. They want to do it too.”
A growing ecosystem
When Joraanstad and Raguse launched Myriad Mobile, Downtown Fargo hadn’t experienced its revitalization and the entrepreneurial business scene wasn’t flourishing like it is today.
“It has significantly improved. There were probably a handful of startups in Fargo, and 10 years later, there are probably 100-plus,” Joraanstad said. “The GFMEDC was involved in a lot of this early on and were early supporters of Emerging Prairie.”
The Greater Fargo Moorhead Economic Development Corporation (GFMEDC) has been deeply involved in the development and buildout of the regional agtech ecosystem. It has partnered with lead organizations like Grand Farm and NDSU to deliver globally recognized programming and experiences for innovators and startups, along with administering core functions like the EDC-managed Growth Initiative Fund to provide access to capital for companies like Bushel, Amity, Appareo, RedE, and Harvest Profit.
“We recognize that the regional agriculture industry is an engine that not only feeds the world but also has fueled the growth of a robust ag machinery and equipment manufacturing sector,” said Ryan Aasheim, the chief business development officer at the GFMEDC. “On top of that we have seen the expansion of an ag electronics and technology cluster with the acquisition of Phoenix International by John Deere and the more recent acquisition of Appareo by AGCO, two of the biggest names in ag implements in the world. Now is our time to continue to prove we are undisputed leaders in agtech innovation as we see new and existing companies commercializing solutions around robotics, automation, machine learning, AI, sensors and much more.”
One look at the wide expanse that is the greater Fargo-Moorhead region and it’s evident there has been undeniable growth. Much of this economic achievement can be attributed to the wealth of resources and benefits the area has to offer and the concentrated effort made by business leaders, organizations like the GFMEDC and individuals.
“I could probably argue with anybody about why Fargo is one of the best places on earth to start a company right now,” Joraanstad said. “The resources, the capabilities, the cost structure, the talent—there’s undoubtedly nowhere in the United States that has as many incentives for investors to invest in North Dakota companies.”
From grant programs to venture funds, and loan programs to investments, the greater Fargo-Moorhead region has a wealth of resources for small business owners.
“This is literally one of the epicenters of agriculture. Everything from the variety of crops we grow, to the Red River Valley being one of the greatest places to grow crops in the world, period, to the likes of John Deere, Amity Technology, RDO, Case, Titan, AGCO/Aparreo, Bobcat, Steiger Tractor, Phoenix International, Microsoft and others—that whole stack of companies has created a concentration of talent here that knows agriculture. And almost everybody else grew up on a farm or knows someone who did. The whole economy is built around agriculture and energy, so you can’t imagine a better place to start.”
“If you take the amount of manufacturing in this area for the population, it’s significant,” Dahl said. “Part of the perks of starting a manufacturing or agricultural company in the region is that when you have a core infrastructure that supports manufacturing as we have here, you can get supplies and necessary things locally. It allows you to thrive here.”
Technology and the future of farming
One certainty is that the Red River Valley never gets left in the dust when it comes to agricultural advancements. North Dakotans and Minnesotans are always ahead of the curve when it comes to new farming methods, machinery and technology that support worldwide farming ecosystems.
When asked what the future will hold, Dahl said, “We’re going to see more and more autonomous machines, more tractors running without a driver and precision agriculture monitoring every detail on a farm, such as the amount of fertilizer you put in certain places and the spraying being very selective so you don’t put on any more herbicide or pesticide than you need. It’s intelligent agriculture that’s happening very rapidly, and that’s going to continue.”
In the years to come, local business leaders and creatives will continue to harness the power of AI to benefit agriculture while simultaneously supporting the jobs in the bi-state area. The times and methods will continue to evolve, but the ingenuity of local farmers, engineers and leaders will perpetually keep this prosperous region at the forefront of innovation.
“It’s mind-blowing when you actually realize how many things are going on in this area, so I’m excited to be here,” Joraanstad said. “I think others should check out the Fargo area because it’s a great place to build a company. And the people are great too.”