FARGO, N.D.-A Fargo group has applied to the Small Business Administration for a contract grant to develop and create "the first 100 percent autonomous farm."

The so-called "Grand Farm Initiative" is proposed to be completed by 2025, or in seven years, with the SBA funding.

Emerging Prairie, a nonprofit corporation based in Fargo, on Aug. 24 sent in a 15-page application backed by 30 letters of support to SBA for one of seven federal contracts for "regional innovation clusters," says Emerging Prairie co-founder and executive director Greg Tehven (pronounced "teh-VEEN"). Tehven didn't know for sure, but expects it might be awarded within a couple of months.

A successful SBA grant would be a "first step" and "accelerant" in a succession of events that could occur over several years. The grant would be five years at $500,000 per year, or a total of $2.5 million. Programs would be added over the five years, starting with an "inventory" of resources-vehicles, sensors, software and hardware- that is currently available.

Birth of an idea

Tehven says the inspiration for an autonomous farm idea started in March 2017, when Barry Batcheller, famed agricultural engineer and founder of Appareo Systems and other entities in the Fargo area, spoke at 1 Million Cups, an entrepreneurship event that Emerging Prairie organizes in Fargo.

Emerging Prairie "exists to connect and celebrate the entrepreneurial ecosystem." Headquarters is in a "coworking and event space" in downtown Fargo at 122½ Broadway, N., in Fargo, in a location called "Prairie Den," below the King House Buffet. The space is supported by the Greater Fargo-Moorhead Economic Development Corp.

In his 2017 speech, Batcheller, board chairman for Appareo, then asked a crowd of 330, "What is Fargo's major?"-meaning it's core competency in business and innovation. The answer: advancing technology in agriculture.

Batcheller later met with Tehven and Emerging Prairie co-founder Jake Joraanstad, also chief executive of Myriad Mobile; as well as others including Kevin Biffert, president of operations at Korber Medipak Systems NA, and owner of Fargo Automation Inc.; Brian Carroll, formerly of Navteq International NA, Fargo; and others.

The group agreed that an autonomous farm would be a "grand challenge"-a doable dream with a flavor of putting a man on the moon.

Tehven says there are autonomous machine efforts around the globe, including Israel, Germany and Brazil to innovate, but this region has natural advantages of "great relationships with policy-makers, strong dedication from the private sector, growers and farmers that are facing a challenge on workforce and shortages of labor." Another advantage is proximity and relationships to North Dakota State University, the students and professors.

SBA discovery

When the SBA grant opportunity was discovered, Emerging Prairie staff "aggregated" the work they'd already been doing with Batcheller and others and applied for the grant.

The project is "looking at policy, so that autonomous vehicles can come in and off the farm, that the crops can be planted, managed, maintained, watered, fertilized autonomously. That the product can be sold autonomously. And that 100 percent of the process would be managed by intelligent machines."

Tehven said promoters have "identified a piece of land that we hope by 2025 can be farmed, maintained, taken care of, autonomously," Tehven says. He also indicates there are a few potential locations in the region, all within about 20 miles from downtown Fargo.

He says an experimental farm would be "one plot of land," but might be in the ballpark of 80 acres. "I would love to see one acre farmed autonomously," Tehven says. Grand Farm Initiative would "partner with landowners" so that engineers, innovators and entrepreneurs can use the farm to test out their ideas.

He says the project so far is in the "concept stage," and that proponents have "built out" with four key steps:

1. mapping the entrepreneurial ecosystem

2. assembling a "rapid prototyping center"-sometimes called a "makerspace"- allowing "folks in the region to come and utilize current technologies and build on top of them"

3. building a "business accelerator," supporting the company with skill development, access to capital and mentorship

4. working in schools to focus on computer software and hardware engineering.

Tehven says the innovation would involve a variety of industries, a variety of sectors. He says the innovation will grow from the region's heritage that includes such business successes as Bobcat, Steiger Tractor and Peterson Farms Seed.

Tehven says he knows of no similar SBA-funding opportunity to develop crop-based agriculture in the Upper Midwest.

Tehven, 33, grew up in a farming family but didn't have a lot of interest in farming as a youth. "Now, with the convergence of the energy, the technology and the potential, we're just-as a nonprofit-looking at making a positive impact in our region," he says.