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Lofty 'Grand Farm' gets down-to-earth in its ag innovation journey

Take a look at the major moments since the project was announced

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Microsoft President Brad Smith (center) explains his company’s $1.5 million investment into the Red River Valley’s Grand Farm, an autonomous farming development project led by Emerging Prairie. The announcement came at Microsoft Fargo Campus, in Fargo. At left and right are North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum and Barry Batcheller, an agricultural technology entrepreneur and backer of the project. Photo taken Oct. 17, 2019, at Fargo, N.D.
Mikkel Pates / Forum News Service
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The Grand Farm — it’s a lofty name for an ambitious project.

It started out five years ago as a rhetorical challenge, and soon will be a multi-million-dollar, brick-and-mortar effort to put the Red River Valley in the driver’s seat for a once-inconceivable idea — a “100% autonomous farm.”

Officially, it’s the Grand Farm Education and Research Initiative Inc., and the project is promoted as a “neutral platform” for ag investment into ag technology.

The organization has an office in downtown Fargo, but in the next year, the group will set up shop in the field — standing up an Innovation Facility in a big way at Casselton, North Dakota. Undergirding that is a $10 million federal matching grant. A “soft” capital campaign has provided $2 million from major contributors. A more public phase will begin by the end of 2022.

In June 2022, the entity purchased 140 acres of farmland about two miles west of Casselton for a permanent field home. The site is surrounded by nearly a square mile of some of the world’s most productive topsoil, in an area where some of the region’s first large-scale, commercial bonanza farms got their start in the late 1800s.

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Brian Carroll, director of the project, said he and others are working with architects, and they expect to start dirt work before the end of the 2022. Construction will start in earnest in 2023, with an eye toward it as a permanent location by the end of that year.

Leaders and collaborators from granite-faced institutions like North Dakota State University — already famous for their own agricultural teaching and research protocols — are connecting with the Grand Farm as a “neutral place” to study the future. Grand Farm also has collaborated with the University of North Dakota’s Research Institute for Autonomous Systems.

Grand chronology

The chronology of Grand Farm is something of a maze of entities. Here are some dizzying, historic highlights over seven years:

  • March 2013  — Greg Tehven, a West Fargo, North Dakota, native and graduate of the University of Minnesota, with advanced training in “social entrepreneurship,”  co-founded Emerging Prairie , a not-for-profit organization in downtown Fargo as an entrepreneur’s  “coworking and event space”’. It creates a headquarters dubbed  “ Prairie Den .” Among other things, Emerging Prairie organizes speaker seminars (like the famed “Ted Talks”) called 1 Million Cups.
  • March 2017 — Emerging Prairie sponsors a 1 Million Cups seminar of short speeches. One speaker is Barry Batcheller, a “serial entrepreneur” of North Dakota. Batcheller, who had been important in his own high-tech electronics companies — a founder of Phoenix International and Appareo — suggested that the North Dakota/Minnesota region possessed a huge asset: an impressive history of farming technology innovation with a heritage that includes Bobcat , Steiger , Concord , his own Phoenix International and Appareo Systems of Fargo, a tech company. In his speech, Batcheller suggested that with a declining population on farms and a need for accomplishing agriculture with fewer workers, the industry should strive for “autonomous” techniques for tomorrow’s agriculture using “artificial intelligence,” and “machine learning.” He urges development of a “fully autonomous farm” by the year 2025.
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Grand Farm has purchased land on the southwest corner of exit 328 off Highway 94 for its future Innovation Facility.
Contributed / Grand Farm

  • 2018 — With the encouragement of Batcheller and others, Emerging Prairie formally announced the Grand Farm initiative. In 2018, Carroll was named the project’s director. Lauris Molbert, of Arthur Ventures, current executive chair of the Kilbourne Group,  chairs a steering committee that includes Batcheller; Tehven; Kevin Biffert, founder of Fargo Automation, and seven others from agribusiness and state government. Batcheller speaks at TEDxFargo, offering a vision of a “Robosention Valley” in the Red River Valley to focus on no mechanization and automation of farming. Brad Smith, president of Microsoft, discusses a “digital divide.
  • April 2019 — Grand Farm cuts a ribbon at a Grand Farm Test Site, a 40-acre parcel of farmland near Horace, North Dakota, south of Fargo. The land is owned by Kevin and Stacy Biffert.  Then-U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue, Sens. John Hoeven, R-N.D. and Kevin Cramer, and Gov. Doug Burgum all attended the groundbreaking. The project is designed to address “pain points” for farmers — lack of labor and venture capital to develop robotic and artificial intelligent technology.
  • Oct. 17,  2019 — Microsoft President Brad Smith in Fargo  announces a $1.5 million, three-year grant to help the Grand Farm to build a “world-class leading ag innovation center” that showcases the “farm of the future.” Smith said it would “bring to life the new technology that will really sustain farming into the future and make farmers more productive and profitable.” The grant helped pay for Emerging Digital Academy which has trained about three cohorts per year, with over 50 graduates.The program, chaired by Byron Snider, SIS-Leader for Scheels, has a “near 100% placement rate” and has doubled the annual salaries, to over $60,000, Carroll said.
  • Feb. 11,  2020 — Grand Farm Research and Education Initiative, Inc., becomes its own non-profit corporation. Mike Derheim, is the board chairman, of a five-member board, including Taya Spelhaug, TechSpark manager at Microsoft; Jay schuler, ag entrepreneur; state Rep. Cynthia Schreiber-Beck, R-Wahpeton, state representative and business woman, and Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union.
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Brian Carroll, director of the Grand Farm Education and Research Initiative, Inc., at the Cultivate ag-tech conference in Fargo, N.D., said contractors should start dirt work at a new Innovation Facility near Casselton, N.D., in 2022, and a usable building should be in place by summer 2023. Photo taken June 30, 2022, in Fargo, N.D.
Mikkel Pates Agweek

  • March 2020 — Plug-and-Play announces a North Dakota entity to engage start-ups through six-month cohorts.
  • April 2020 – Emerging Prairie launches Emerging Digital Academy, a 20-week course for software coding, needed in some of the businesses connected to Grand Farm.
  • August 2021 — Despite the COVID-19 pandemic, Grand Farm announced it deployed more than 200 “projects” with 30 “partners” on more than 130 acres (most leased) and planted soybeans, corn, rye, sugar beets, wheat and sunflower. Topics include “precision agriculture, robotics, autonomous systems, biologics, big data, satellites, internet-of-things, and connectivity solutions.” 
  • February 2022 — The North Dakota Department of Commerce announced it had selected Grand Farm for a $10 million matching grant aimed at Autonomous Agriculture Technology Matching Grant. The funds came through the North Dakota Department of Commerce from a special session of the North Dakota Legislature to use federal COVID funds. 
  • May 3, 2022  — Grand Farm announced it had selected a new home for its Innovation Facility. The site near Casselton beat out finalists within 30 miles of Fargo. The site will have visibility on the south side of Interstate 94.
  • June 30, 2022 — Grand Farm announced it had purchased the land from a local farm family. The announcement came at Central Cass High School in Casselton with several hundred in attendance.
  • Aug. 30, 2022 — Grand Farm announced a $1 million federal appropriation to create a cooperative agreement to advance precision agriculture between Grand Farm, North Dakota State University and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
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A new partnership was announce between Grand Farm, NDSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service Tuesday, Aug. 30.
WDAY News

Carroll said that besides building the facility, real projects are developing and result from Grand Farm events.

One example came May 19, 2022, when Kratos Defense & Security Solutions, Inc., announced it is teaming with Minn-Dak Farmers Cooperative of Wahpeton, North Dakota, on a project involving self-driving trucks. The collaboration was fostered by Grand Farm. The participants met at an event, in collaboration with the North Dakota of Transportation.

In July 2022, KWS Group,headquartered in Einbeck, Germany, announced it will cultivate five acres of experimental sugar beets to develop “sustainable farming practices benefiting sugarbeet” and other row crop growers. Mike Boyher, manager of KWS’s Digital Innovation Accelerator group, will manage the plot to focus on the company’s initiatives — Smart Field Research, Automated & Connected Farm, Farmer of the Future, Seed to Table, and Adapting to Climate Change. To do this, they’ll use artificial intelligence, IoT, analytics, robotics, blockchain, and aerial imagery.

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Grand Farm recently formalized its Farmers Advisory Board to further define the “pain points” for farmers with new technology — often involving cost and efficacy. One of the results of those conversations is that Boson Motors, an autonomous truck company from California, formed by Google employees, has announced it will move several employees in the Prairie Den to develop an autonomous farm truck that will help with farm chores at a $25,000 price point.

Related Topics: BUSINESSIMPACT 2022
Jenny Schlecht is the director of ag content for Agweek and serves as editor of Agweek, Sugarbeet Grower and BeanGrower. She lives on a farm and ranch near Medina, North Dakota, with her husband and two daughters. You can reach her at jschlecht@agweek.com or 701-595-0425.
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