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UND conference explores the intersection of space and agriculture

About 250 people attended the event, either virtually or in-person, with viewers tuning in from nine countries.

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UND President Andrew Armacost, right, stands with the university's mascot and David Mateus, a graduate student demonstrating wearing a space suit, at the Space Ag conference on Thursday, April, 14.
Adam Kurtz / Grand Forks Herald
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GRAND FORKS — A conference held at UND on Tuesday, April 14, examined how space-related technology can be used to benefit agriculture producers, and how lessons learned from farmers and businesspeople can be used to further governmental interest in space exploration.

The Space Ag conference was put on by UND and Grand Farm, a future-farming technology test site near Fargo. It drew together academics from UND, the business community and NASA researchers, to explore advanced agriculture technologies. About 250 people attended the event, either virtually or in-person, with viewers tuning in from nine countries.

“We're really excited about driving innovation that's going to help our farmers in our region through space technology,” said Andrew Jason, ecosystems director for Grand Farm.

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Tom Vilsack, the 32nd U.S. Secretary of Agriculture, was the keynote speaker at University of Minnesota Crookston's commencement ceremony on Saturday, May 7, 2022.

Jason said his goals for the conference, now in its second year with the first having been held in Fargo, include highlighting the impact of technology such as satellites on farming. Other goals included showcasing business opportunities, as NASA looks to partner with companies that can deliver technology that further its designs in space. Jason said he also wanted to show future farming technologies to students, to excite the minds of the next generation of agricultural producers.

Sen. Kevin Cramer, R-N.D, and founding chairman of the space caucus in the Senate, delivered the keynote address Thursday. He said the overlap between space and agriculture might seem far-fetched, but it has important implications as farmland shrinks when people expand into it. Discoveries of doing more in small spaces often occur in space studies, and is a relatable concept for farmers looking to increase the yields of their lands.

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“It's really not far-fetched at all, it's quite significant on a very large scale,” Cramer said.

UND President Andrew Armacost urged attendees to take the conference as an opportunity to let their minds wander and focus on the “realm of the possible.”

And what is possible can at times seem unbelievable. Joe Vacek, COO of Grand Forks-based company SafetySpect and associate professor at UND, told the Herald his company is working to commercialize a scanning device that can detect when a plant is stressed, before it shows visible symptoms of being in poor health. It’s an offshoot of the company’s device that scans and detects contaminants on a surface, then disinfects them. The latter technology is being used by United Airlines.

Vacek said the plant health-scanner can be used by farmers to quickly address issues that may pop up in their crops. The device is handheld, and he said he is working to scale it to the point where it could cover more ground.

NASA may also be interested in such a device. Earlier in the conference, Ralph Fritsche, a senior project manager who researches crop production for deep space exploration missions, said fruits and vegetables will be needed for astronauts spending long periods of time in space, on a lengthy mission to Mars, for example.

Astronauts at the International Space Station receive regular shipments of processed and prepackaged food. They get vegetables, too, though they tend not to last long as there are no refrigerators or freezers on the space station. After time, the prepackaged meals can lose their nutritional value. Having a device that can detect stress in plants can help astronauts maintain their own crop of vegetables. Vacek said he is eager to explore a partnership with the space agency.

“It sounds like NASA would be interested in having this technology on ISS just to test it and make sure it works, for future long duration space missions,” Vacek said. “We're looking forward to working out that relationship.”

Adam Kurtz is the community editor for the Grand Forks Herald. He covers higher education and other topics in Grand Forks County and the city.

Kurtz joined the Herald in July 2019. He covered business and county government topics before covering higher education and some military topics.

Tips and story ideas are welcome. Get in touch with him at akurtz@gfherald.com, or DM at @ByAdamKurtz.

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