North Dakota’s roots are agrarian. The work being done here has affected agriculture around the world. It’s time we plant the flag in the ground and declare it to the world. That’s exactly what we’re doing with Grand Farm, the world’s first fully automated farm.
To understand where agriculture is going, you have to understand where it came from. Farming began about 10,000 years ago when society went from hunter-gatherers to an agricultural society. They first grew wheat, barley, peas and lentils instead of letting them grow wild. And that’s kind of how it stayed. Over the next thousands of years, farming didn’t change that dramatically.
“In many ways, agriculture is the same as it was thousands of years ago,” said Barry Batcheller, Chairman of the Board for Appareo. “If you were to go back to Mesopotamia, you’d find that the early agrarians would make a slit in the earth and put plants in there to grow. From that, you graduated to water buffalo and they’d drag a stick through the ground and then put seeds in it and it’d grow.”
As the water buffalo demonstrated, over the millennia that followed, technology slowly shaped the way that farming is done. However, for the most part, ag tech didn’t transform that rapidly until everything changed in the late 1800s. North Dakota played a pivotal role in that change.
Two men by the name of George Cass and Benjamin Cheney, both railroad officials, purchased 13,000 acres of land in Casselton, N.D. According to the State Historical Society of North Dakota, they continued to expand their property until they owned more than 100,000 acres of farmland in North Dakota and Minnesota. This kicked off what officially became known as bonanza farms. These gigantic wheat farms were meant to create gigantic amounts of wealth for its owners.
Because of its large size, these bonanza farms required countless men to work the fields but alongside those men came advanced agriculture technology. The impact from the bonanza farms has had a lasting effect on the Red River Valley over the last 150 years.
“Early on, the big Bonanza farms encouraged people to attempt to use early means of mechanization to plant more land and to grow more crops,” said Batcheller. “Fast forward, we’re doing the same thing today. We’re planting more land, we’re highly mechanized.”
Now, the Red River Valley and North Dakota as a whole are officially planting its stake in the ground as a continuing leader in ag tech with the launch of the Grand Farm, a push to create the first fully automated farm. Over the rest of this magazine, we’ll examine what this means for our state and the impact it will have on our economy and workforce.
However, this all started with one simple question: What’s our major? That’s where Batcheller comes in.
WHAT’S OUR MAJOR?
In March 2017, at a One Million Cups in Fargo, Batcheller, who has been an industry leader and involved with ag tech his entire career, challenged the Red River Valley to declare its major. After many conversations with Greg Tehven, the executive director of Emerging Prairie, the choice appeared to be easy as to what the region’s major should be.
“I think there’s no doubt in the hearts and minds of many people in this region that this is an agricultural region of this country,” said Batcheller. “What’s infused upon that and what’s happened over the last 40-50 years is that there’s been the collision of traditional agrarian society with technologies of the modern world that are coming in and changing things.”
While the history of bonanza farms and our deep agrarian roots play an important role in declaring agricultural technology as our major, it also has deep roots in our business community.
“What made us decide to declare a major in this area?” said Batcheller. “These activities that are ongoing around the area of mechanized agriculture have an epicenter here in Fargo. We have Case IH. We have John Deere Electronics. We are doing work with a company called AGCO. There are really three large agricultural companies in the United States: Case IH, John Deere and AGCO. Here in the NDSU Research and Technology Park, a substantial amount of the advanced technology that’s taking place electronically in agriculture is taking place within a mile of where you’re sitting right now.”
It would be shortsighted to think of Grand Farm as just creating a fully automated farm. It’s about creating an ecosystem that will attract companies, workers and capital to flock to North Dakota to become involved.
Emerging Prairie, a Fargo organization that focuses on connecting and celebrating the entrepreneurial ecosystem, is spearheading this initiative. Brian Carroll, Director of Operations at Emerging Prairie, explained that there are really five pillars that go into the growth of Grand Farm.
2. Innovation Platform
3. Maker Space
4. Upscaling the workforce
“When we thought about the Grand Farm, this is in the future, this is what the future’s going to look like and there’s going to be a whole bunch of different change that’s going to have to happen to get to that point,” said Carroll. “We can either be participants in that change or that change can happen to us.”
However, again, to know where you’re going, you have to go back to where you came from.
AGRICULTURE AND THE RED RIVER VALLEY
Edward Gideon Melroe was a farmer in Gwinner, N.D., who was frustrated with the backbreaking labor that went into farming in the 1920s. He decided to take things into his own hands when he invented the windrow pickup. He eventually opened a factory in Gwinner to manufacture this invention.
Fast-forward 30 years to 1957 and Louis and Cyril Keller, brothers from Rothsay, Minn., invented a three-wheeled loader because they were tired of all the work that went into cleaning up the barn. The Kellers brothers went into business with Melroe to produce the Melroe self-propelled loader, model M60.
Fast-forward another 60 years and you now have Bobcat Doosan, an international company that’s one of the major players in ag tech.
The examples go on. Steiger Tractor became Case IH. Phoenix International became John Deere Electronic Solutions. And on and on. As these companies became more successful, more offshoot businesses sprang from them and success begat success. It turns out this is the same way another well-known tech area began.
“That domino effect of creating businesses that spawn other businesses is exactly what happened in Silicon Valley with the Fairchild company,” said Batcheller. “Fairchild begat Intel and so on. What happens when you get the critical mass of technical competence in an area, it begins to multiply. It begins to split. We encourage that in our business. We’re not asking our people to quit and start making businesses. But, I think that it’s a very positive thing that people do.”
One of those success stories that came from another ag tech company is Appareo. Batcheller started at Steiger Tractor before founding Phoenix International in Fargo. While there, he pioneered the development of electronics for John Deere until the company acquired Phoenix International and became John Deere Electronics. In 2003, Batcheller founded Appareo, a product development and technology company that specializes in agriculture and aerospace, and has a joint venture with AGCO.
“The more electronics companies we have, the more software companies we have, the more attractive to people outside of the area to come here and bring their families and they know they have mobility. That’s a big deal,” said Batcheller. “That’s a lot of what’s going on in New England and Silicon Valley. People are not concerned. They know that if they pack up and move to one of those areas, there are many opportunities for them to grow.”
Grand Farm hopes to continue on the success of the past. However, it will also play a major role in the future of automation and work in general when it comes to agriculture.
“I think there’s no doubt in the hearts and minds of many people in this region that this is an agricultural region of this country. What’s infused upon that and what’s happened over the last 40-50 years is that there’s been the collision of traditional agrarian society with technologies of the modern world.”BARRY BATCHELLER
AUTOMATION AND WORK IN AGRICULTURE
“When I was a kid, I saw a movie called Star Wars,” said Batcheller. “Luke Skywalker’s foster parents are called Mr. and Mrs. Lars. They were moisture farmers. When people think about automation, they probably think about the Lars family on Tatooine. That probably gives people an unsettling impression of where this could end up.”
When people think of automation in agriculture, the first thought that probably comes to mind is robots running around the field and barn taking care of every aspect of farming. While that may be the truth someday, we are still a long way off from that becoming a reality. In fact, automation will simply continue the trend of what’s been happening over the last 50 years.
“The truth of the matter is that the social structure of farming has changed substantially and will continue to change substantially,” said Batcheller. “It does not mean that there will not be a population that’s close to the earth who enjoys that lifestyle of farming. It will mean that the means by which they accomplish that will change.”
The other thing that probably pops into people’s minds when you talk about automation is the replacement of jobs. In a state that had 15,122 open jobs in March 2019, according to Job Service ND, the simple fact is that there just aren’t enough people to fill the jobs required, especially in farming when the jobs are only for certain times of the year.
“It turns out that the demand for ancillary labor happens in two parts of the year and during the rest of the year, there isn’t so much of a demand necessarily,” said Batcheller. “Historically, the social construct was that there were always people around to help. Families were larger. They had many children. There was a ready workforce of young people available during harvesting and planting.
“That’s not the case anymore. Farms are getting larger. Families are getting smaller. The capability of having a workforce of that nature at the right times is not viable anymore. Nevertheless, the demand for the goods and services produced by farms are there so you have to satisfy that. The way of doing that is by automation. It will replace periods of time where there is a temporary demand for labor with automation.”
Automation will replace those unfilled jobs. Let’s look at harvesting as a good example of how automation can help solve a workforce problem.
Normally, farmers will hire some seasonal employees to work 16-20 hour days to harvest all the crop. These workers need to eat, sleep and spend time with their families. However, now you can have a fully automated combine harvest a field 24 hours a day creating increased productivity. That’s just one way that automation will help solve a problem.
This technology is still new and only being used by early adopters but we are not that far away from when this technology will be adopted by the average farmer. The trend has been for combines and tractors to become bigger, but there will be a shift to smaller machines as they become more productive and efficient. This will hopefully affect the cost automated equipment.
“Farmers are currently required to spend large amounts of money to buy equipment,” said Batcheller. “Now, the equipment is very productive but it’s expensive. A new combine or tractor today is a many hundreds of thousands of dollars investment. The emerging technology trend is to move toward smaller machines. There will be more of those on the farm, but each machine will be less expensive.”
Despite what you might think, this innovation won’t just favor the larger equipment manufacturers.
“I believe the innovations in this area will start in smaller businesses. I think the larger businesses are going to wait. There are many things that concern them about this. To change over from the types of technologies that they are using today to future technology is not a trivial task for them.
“What we’re trying to do with the Grand Farm is to create an impetus for these smaller businesses to create the next generation of products and to bring these products to the farm. We aren’t looking for this to take place at John Deere, Case IH and AGCO. They will ultimately, of course, be participants and build great equipment. We think the vanguard of this will be smaller businesses that deploy and demonstrate the capability.”
SOLVING GLOBAL PROBLEMS
Right now, there are about 7.7 billion people on earth. By 2050, there is expected to be 10 billion people and every one of them must eat. However, the trend doesn’t just end with feeding that growing population.
“Many of those people are transitioning to higher protein diets,” said Batcheller. “A lot of the protein that’s developed is from animals that eat crops. It turns out that’s a fairly poor conversion. Trying to convert corn to steak or pork through the process of an animal’s gut is not a very efficient process.”
In the 1950s, Norman Borlaug and other scientists led what was called the Green Revolution. By focusing on new farming techniques, this revolution created a massive increase in yields around the world. Borlaug alone is often credited with saving a billion people from starvation.
The hope of Grand Farm is that this ag tech ecosystem will put North Dakota on a global scale to help solve these growing problems.
“We started looking at the Grand Farm as a potential to anchor on some really big problems that we could put some focus on solving,” said Carroll. “That’s where the accelerator and innovation platform started to come and the accelerated learning model where we’re looking to bring in a code school and looking at ways we can do software design and UX design but eventually move it into embedded systems, hardware, robotics, internet of things, artificial intelligence, all those different things that would be required to do that.”
It’s not just a global hunger crisis that farming will have to solve, it’s also environmental concerns. The concern of chemicals and GMOs have been well reported in the media. However, the truth is that without the increase in chemicals and genetically modified organisms, there wouldn’t be enough food to feed the population. Batcheller believes that there will be a push to increase the yields and productivity with mechanization.
“There’s a growing concern across the world of what affect the use of chemicals will have on the resulting food products and how they make it into the human ecosystem,” said Batcheller. “As a result of that, machines of the future are going to be very, very careful about the amount and location of chemical application. In the old days, they used to come with beet crop workers who came out to the field and hoed the beets. There will be, in the future, extremely high speed machines that will go down these roads and mechanically weed the crops. That will really take the pressure off chemical application.”
Over the rest of this magazine, we’ll be looking at how Grand Farm is hoping to solve these problems and how Grand Farm will affect our state. This push toward ag tech will put North Dakota on the same scale as some of the biggest thinkers in the world.
“The more electronics companies we have, the more software companies we have, the more attractive to people outside of the area to come here and bring their families and they know they have mobility. That’s a big deal.”BARRY BATCHELLER
A great way of looking at Grand Farm is to look at other technology companies working to solve global problems. One of Elon Musk’s, the eccentric founder of Tesla, companies is SpaceX. They are working on a project called Starlink that hopes to launch 12,000 satellites into orbit around the Earth that will provide internet to everywhere on the globe.
“If you think telephones changed the world, what happens when every place on this planet – like the savanna in Africa – will have access to very inexpensive gigabit data?” asked Batcheller.
So, if you have to look back, to see where we’re going, doesn’t it make sense that the region that helped shape agriculture continues to lead the way?
“In my mind, the time is right for this type of stuff,” said Carroll. “There’s a great convergence that’s taking place. There’s a clear understanding of what the future looks like and I think it’s time for our region and North Dakota to be deeply engaged and involved in that process and be on the leading edge of it. We have the natural resources available. We have the talent. We have organizations. We have it in our DNA. This is a great opportunity for us to lead the world around it.”
The Farm Of The Future
So you’re probably wondering what exactly the future of farming will look like. Well, Batcheller has an idea.
“Twenty-five to 50 years from now, if you are harvesting wheat, there will be grain carts on the field that will be fully autonomous. They will come alongside the harvesting machine. The harvesting machine will offload its content until it’s tenders. The combines themselves will be incredibly smart. The grains that they are harvesting will be segregated. It will be able to segregate grains according to certain characteristics of the grains within the combine themselves and offload those grain characteristics to different tenders filtered by any number of parameters such as protein and things like that.
“The tenders will then go to a staging area where the contents will be coupled to a Department of Transportation approved autonomous truck that will haul them back to the elevator or to the farm sites themselves. Current farming practices require that a large amount of time be expended in the logistics of moving crops after they’re harvested. That will be performed primarily by autonomous equipment 25-50 years from now.”