Creating farms of tomorrow
FARGO, N.D.—If anyone is in a position to be a senior adviser for an "epicenter" for developing an autonomous farm, that would be Barry Batcheller.
He already is a central figure in making the Red River Valley one of the world's centers of electronics development for agriculture, building on the region's strong agricultural equipment heritage, with brands like Bobcat, Steiger, Concord, Case-IH (now CNH, Inc., or Case New Holland).
Batcheller, 68, is chairman of the board of Appareo Systems LLC in Fargo. Batcheller was born in New York and in 1969 came to North Dakota State University where, he earned an electrical engineering degree.
Out of college, he initially worked for Steiger Tractor Inc. of Fargo for 11 years during the go-go years of the 1970s. He managed Steiger's Integrated Technical Systems, Inc., a wholly-owned subsidiary, based at Valley City, N.D.
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When Steiger was acquired by Tenneco, Inc. (J.I. Case, now CNH Inc.), Batcheller in 1987 started Phoenix International, a company that designed "full authority electronic systems" for agricultural machines. That grew to 1,200 employees worldwide, with factories in Fargo, Springfield, Ill., and a company in Denmark and sales offices in Paris and Cologne, Italy.
Deere & Co. purchased Phoenix International in 1999, Batcheller became director of technology growth until he retired in 2005.
Then Batcheller started Appareo, which initially made electrical equipment for aerospace but then eventually re-engaged in agriculture, which is about half of its focus. Today, Appareo is headed by Barry's son, David, as chief executive officer. In 2014, Appareo announced a 50-50 joint venture with AGCO Corp., under the Independent Agricultural Solution brand. IAS develops electronics for sale into the "after-market" market and 100 percent of the profits go into new technology development for AGCO.
Batcheller acknowledges his role in growing the high-tech ag business.
John Deere went on to expand its operations in Fargo, employs several hundred and develops one-third to one-half of its electronics in Fargo. Appareo employs about 250 people.
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The future looks bright for these businesses as the "IQ," or level of intelligence of mobile equipment is increasing. In automotive equipment, Ford pickup has automatic radar that keeps pace in traffic, has "lane holding," and automatic lightening and brightening of headlights. There is a "definite indication" that trucks will travel across country, autonomously.
Similarly, a new class of "sentient" or "thinking equipment" will take off in automotive and agricultural equipment, he says. This will complement high-technology in agricultural biologics and breeding, fertilization and chemigation. This complements information on putting seeds in the right depth and placement."
Technology is in place to "name every corn seed in a field," and place it precisely in proximity to neighbors for maximum orientation and fertilization, at an incredible speed. All of this fits with automation. Skilled farm labor is a problem in a world of larger farms, smaller families and concerns about immigration. Robots will be trained to do the "dull, dirty and dangerous" work.
The Red River Valley has a history of innovating with iron as Silicon Valley has in its development of high-technology.
"In this research park, we have two companies that are leading the industry in technology and development in agriculture," he says. "Historically, our roots go to agriculture. What type of agriculture is going to be the agriculture of tomorrow?"
The Red River Valley has earned a place in answering that, he says.