ND Hopes to Serve as Epicenter of Farms Going Digital

Mike Moen

FARGO -- A North Dakota project, Grand Farm Education and Research Initiative, looks to play a role in steering farming innovation, in the U.S. and abroad.

Local producers say while there are barriers, the innovation hub could provide benefits.

In late April, an official with Grand Farm testified before a Congressional committee about the progress of the emerging project, and the need for more grant money to take bigger steps.

The Grand Farm test site near Fargo allows outside partners to do experimental work in agricultural technology.

Mark Watne, President of the North Dakota Farmers Union, said he's encouraged farmers have a voice in the brainstorming.

"If you think about the cell-phone world, most of us like to upgrade every year or two years," Watne explained. "We don't always get any additional benefits, but we have that desire. We want the stuff that goes out to agriculture to actually have those benefits each time you do it."

He pointed to better tracking of invasive species leading to smarter use of chemical products as one example of benefits to farmers and consumers.

Watne, who is on the Grand Farm board of directors, acknowledged more precision could mean fewer jobs on farms, but he said the industry is already heading in that direction, and new technology spurs interest from the next generation of farmers.

Other supporters note the technology helps with worker shortage issues in agriculture.

J.P. Lueck, a farmer near Jamestown who also works in aerospace, said it's good to test applications from outside the farming world to see what works. For Grand Farm, Lueck sees potential in data sharing.

"With the tools that we have on the farm today, to me, it's kind of all fragmented going across," Lueck stressed. "Whether it's different brands of equipment, or third-party equipment, so to speak, and trying to get them to all talk to each other."

However, Lueck warned it's harder for smaller operations to afford new technology, and hopes the industry keeps that in mind as it brings new products to the market.

In 2019, Grand Farm received $1.5 million from Microsoft. Supporters hope early testing work will lead to more investment and government grants to allow the project to continue.

K. William Boyer is the Managing Editor of the Devils Lake News Journal. He can be reached at kboyer@gannett.com, or by phone at (701) 662-2127.  

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