Former North Dakota governor and Secretary of Agriculture, Ed Schafer has served North Dakota and agriculture his entire life. While offcially out of the political spotlight, he remains actively involved in promoting business and agriculture. We caught up with him to discuss the drastic shift in agriculture technology that’s happening in his state.
Q: Being from North Dakota and living here most of your life, how do you view this change that’s come to the state with the Grand Farm?
A: I think the great thing about North Dakota is that it is of the size and scope where you can delve into new products, ways, ideas and technology. Surprisingly enough, we don’t know it, but many states have followed and many manufacturers have copied. You have a situation where 25 years from now, you look back and say, “We tried this and it worked. We tried that, it didn’t work.” People came in from all over the world to our operations to see how they handled it. That’s always exciting to know that you can be in the forefront and what they’re looking at is performance. They see here’s a new way to create nutrition in the world. Here’s a way to get better production. Here’s a way that you can solve a labor shortage.
North Dakota is often times in the position of leading because we can. We have Independent-minded folks here that like to strike out on their own and they invent new equipment and look at new products and have new ideas for processing. People come here to see it. I think we really become a laboratory of experimentation that people look at and say, “We better check that out and see how it can work for us.”
Q: As far as new technology goes, the private sector often just kind of runs with it and starts creating and then it’s up to the government to catch up with policy. How far away do you think we are from seeing substantial conversations being had about automation?
A: I disagree with that. I don’t believe that policy follows business. What a lot of people don’t understand is that really good policy is no policy. The government staying out of the way and not inventing policy, need or having to create some kind of regulation or control is not a bad thing.
Too often we want to rush in and say, “We should develop some policy for that.” It is not, I don’t believe, government following action with policy. I think what happens is as things develop, there becomes a more apparent need for licensure, liability insurance or some kind of government oversight. But, I think it’s a danger for government to say, “Let’s lead in policy,” because government always gets in the way.
The big guys always look to protect their marketplace and the best way they can protect their marketplace is to lock out the entrepreneurs, the new guys, the new experimenters and keep them out of the market because then they’re not a threat to us. The biggest way to keep them out is government control.
The best way and policy is to stay out of the way. But, another way is to say, “We’re not going to regulate this, we’re not going to license this. We’re not going to sanction this. We’re going to provide funds for grants. We’re going to provide opportunities for research in universities. We’re going to provide ways that businesses can link in and lower their cost of capital for investment.” Government is better in enhancing and encouraging the marketplace instead of saying, “No, we’re going to control by policy the marketplace.”
Q: In your time as governor or as Secretary of Agriculture what discussions were being had about automation and where it’s going in agriculture?
A: Technology innovation has come to agriculture for hundreds of years. We went from people poking sticks in the ground to having animals pull equipment. Then you had the steam tractor and then a diesel tractor. You have had this progression of technological innovation from day one in farming.
When I was in the governor’s office, we were starting to see auto steer. It was infrared auto steer. GPS capacity wasn’t accurate enough to do it, but you could put a laser down your field and run a tractor down there for straight lines. My father-in-law was known for his straight rows, but he did it by steering. His son now gets auto steer out on the farm and you’re not making straight rows anymore. You’re sitting in the cab while the tractor is running straight and you’re trading future deliveries with your broker or with your elevator while you’re sitting there.
You were at Amity Technology, think about how the change from seeding, which is plowing a row in the round, a furrow and dropping seeds in it versus the air seeder, which they developed with the Concord to be precisely putting seeds in. You get better growth. That’s automation and that has been from day one. The growing conditions are getting worse. We have a growing population. We need to increase our nutrition in our food production. We’re going to do it through mechanization.
Q: With automation, the first thing I’m sure most people think of is, “There goes my job. I’m being replaced.” Looking under the guise that one of North Dakota’s biggest problems is workforce shortage, tell us why automation actually might not be a bad thing for the average person in the state.
A: I think society has always been shaped by technology. When I was in high school and computers were coming, it was like, “We’re all going to lose our jobs.” Then we go to a paperless society and everybody’s like, “How are we going to manage that?” We always have this constant change and change is hard and di cult. We see a large expansion of geography with a low population having autonomous vehicles to be able to produce.
The difficulty is the closing of your small town. We have seen, public policy say “We’re going to have Conservation Reserve Program,” and one rami cation is farmers can head off to Arizona with a big bank account and get paid not to farm. Small communities died and you didn’t have farm workers. As we have consolidated acreage, you don’t have as many farm workers. We’ve been on this constant march to be able to produce more with less. As we produce more with less, automation’s the next step. The biggest thing that we have to face from a social and cultural standpoint is that we have to figure out how to create value to human beings who aren’t going to have the kind of jobs that we have today or that we think we should have. It’s going to change.
As it changes, more production is going to be done not only by technology but by artificial intelligence. As that changes, jobs are going to be different and
we need to make sure that we keep generating a society of acceptance and understanding and use of that new technology instead of just saying, “Oh my gosh, I’m not going to have a job. It’s going to be awful.” We can create value in human beings productivity in ways that are totally different from the way it is now.
Q: I want to go back to something that you said in there about small towns. Obviously, the population has been decreasing more and more and as the trend becomes more automated, there go all the other industries and the workers for other jobs in small towns. Can you talk about what you think will happen to North Dakota’s rural communities as we go down the road?
A: You will not expect me to say this, but I’m excited about the opportunity in rural America. Sixty million people live in rural America and more people want to live in rural America. If you look at the crime rates on the coasts and the environment crumbling on the coast, people are focusing on the Midwest and want to live here. We always get rated as the best place to live, raise your family and all those kinds of things. That comes because of a culture that’s developed in our society of hard work, honesty and caring for your neighbor and lending a helping hand. What happens as we increase technology, you need a broadband capacity to run the automation. With the broadband capacity in the rural area comes the opportunity for lifestyle choices.
When I talk to students and go around North Dakota, I ask, “What are you going to do?” “Well, I’m leaving.” Why are they leaving? They want the bright lights of Broadway. They want to go to a professional baseball game. They want to hear an orchestra. They want lifestyle choices that we don’t have. Tomorrow, lifestyle choices are going to be delivered in the parking lot of the Ashley, North Dakota’s High School where you’re going to be able to listen to the New York Philharmonic Orchestra in computer-generated images in hologram delivery and not tell the difference. Then you don’t have to move to New York to get the bright lights. Then you can live here in an honest, caring neighborhood. You can stay here where it’s crime-free and happy. You don’t have to deal with the rest of it. I’m excited about the future of North Dakota. I’m excited about the future of rural America because I think technology’s going to take us to a place where people want to be.
Q: With this automation, there are going to be high tech and skilled labor jobs. When it comes to education, I look at other organizations like Prime Digital Academy, which is a 20-week coding intensive program. Talk about how higher education and the role it plays along with the different opportunities that are coming out for education.
A: I’m real big on using experience tied together with education to move the economy forward. I think in this case, the role of higher ed., in my opinion, is to enhance human experience with educational opportunities. I teach a leadership class and the first thing I tell my class is you can’t teach leadership. It’s not a teachable skill.
What I can do in this class is we can help you learn how to reach down inside yourself and discover your own leadership skills and then we can teach you how to enhance those skills so that you can apply them to the management position of your agribusiness, starting your own business or whatever. It’s skill development. You can teach skill development in welding, metal bending or application of ability. The reason that I ran for the governor’s office is because I came out of the business community and I said, “I have skills that I’ve developed in the business community: budgeting, management, administration. I think they’re transferable to the public sector and I think if I apply those skills in the public sector, I can make things better. I think the higher education system is to discover skills in people and enhance those skills to apply them in the marketplace.
Q: What message would you want to tell to that audience about Grant Farm and what would be your call to action to them to get involved?
A: In North Dakota and the Red River Valley, agriculture operations have led the way globally for food safety, food production, distribution and storage systems. If you look at it, Midwest farm operations have led the way. Our exports to the world have not been food. Our exports to the world have been methods, ability and advances in equipment. What we’re dealing with here with the Grand Farm is we’re again on the forefront that will lead the world in new production methods, yield increases, water management and environmental management.
Grand Farm is going to be this little 40-acre piece, but it’s going to add tentacles all over the place, saying, “What do you think? How does it work? How does it a ect your community?” I mean all those things are going to come into play with this little 40-acre plot.
My message to agriculture today is, “We don’t know where it’s going to go but it’s important that we advance the science of tomorrow in agriculture. And we can all be a part of it.”