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Million dollar federal appropriation links Grand Farm to NDSU and USDA, with eye on advancing precision ag

A $1 million appropriation came through funding for USDA ARS to enter into cooperative agreements with universities and outside organizations, including Grand Farm, that are focused on precision agriculture research.

A man in a suit speaks against a backdrop of green balloons to a full conference room.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., addresses a packed conference room at North Dakota State University on Aug. 30, 2022, to announce a new partnership among Grand Farm, NDSU and the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek
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FARGO, N.D. — A federal appropriation of $1 million will 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.

The appropriation came through funding for USDA ARS to enter into cooperative agreements with universities and outside organizations, including Grand Farm, that are focused on precision agriculture research.

Sen. John Hoeven announced the appropriation at an event at NDSU on Tuesday, Aug. 30, calling it "another great partnership for this enterprise." The agreement will work on driving "precision ag forward in new and innovative ways," he said.

The multi-million-dollar Grand Farm Initiative — an entity of the non-profit Emerging Prairie in Fargo — has been working since 2019 to establish itself as a “maker space” for research and development of tomorrow’s tools for farms. Grand Farm in May announced it is building a permanent Innovation Facility, about two miles west of Casselton, North Dakota.

The $1 million federal appropriation comes on the heels of a $10 million appropriation for Grand Farm from the North Dakota State Legislature. State Rep. Michael Howe, R-Casselton, said that appropriation was passed with assistance from lawmakers across the state and across party lines.

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A man in a sport coat and jeans leans against a podium in front of a backdrop of green balloons while speaking to a seated audience.
Mark Watne, president of North Dakota Farmers Union and a board member of Grand Farm, said technology is necessary to achieving greater productivity and efficiency on farms and that a $1 million appropriation to join Grand Farm, NDSU and U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service will help farmers find real-world benefits for new technologies. Photo taken Aug. 30, 2022, at NDSU.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

"This start-up, valued-added project is going to be something that we haven't seen across the nation," said Mark Watne, North Dakota Farmers Union president and Grand Farm board member.

He explained that the project comes down to the economics of increasing productivity and efficiency. Though farmers want technology, Watne said there often is a suspicion that some technologies have costs that outweigh the benefits. At Grand Farm, they can see the potential for technology and learn what fits their operations.

"The fact of the matter is, production and product-ability are led by technology," Watne said.

"This is not pie in the sky, someday we might do some thing that might help a farmer," Hoeven said. "This is helping them right now."

Hoeven compared the agreement between the three entities to one at Grand Sky Technology Park, which brought together seven federal agencies and 16 corporate aerospace partners. That facility has become a leader in all manners of aerospace, he said.

"What's this thing going to look like in 17 years? I hope something like what we've got going up in Grand Forks," he said.

Hoeven linked the advancements in the aerospace world with potential advancements in agriculture. As space travel becomes more common, he said there will be a need to sustain life in space.

"Who's going to figure that out? How about us?" Hoeven asked. "Who is better position to do that than us?"

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A man in a suit leans on a podium while speaking in front of a backdrop of green balloons.
Marlen Eve, deputy administrator of the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Agricultural Research Service, said precision agriculture is critically important to agriculture, food and nutrition. Photo taken Aug. 30, 2022, at North Dakota State University.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

He said North Dakota's agriculture productivity, coupled with NDSU's research, the ag tech sector in the Red River Valley and the "entrepreneurial spirit" of North Dakotans makes Grand Farm the right conduit for precision ag research that impacts farmers.

"Nobody else is position better than North Dakota to drive precision agriculture forward," he said.

USDA ARS deputy administrator Marlen Eve said ARS frequently partners with universities and others, even being co-located with universities in some instances. What makes the new agreement special is its focus on precision agriculture and the federal funding attached. Technology is "critically important to agriculture," he said.

"It's an opportunity for us to really drive forward precision ag and the use of digital information and geospacial data within the ag sector to improve decision making, sustainability and productivity," he said after the event. "Any time we have an opportunity to partner with an innovative land grant or other institution, we're eager to do so."

The Tuesday morning event was introduced by Christian Walth, the student body president at NDSU as well as an intern for Grand Farm. Walth explained how his summer at Grand Farm had opened his eyes to the opportunities in agriculture and technology. NDSU President David Cook, speaking later after Walth left to attend class, said the agreement will provide opportunities for students like Walth to experience firsthand the innovation and advancement in industry.

"These kinds of opportunities are amazing for them," he said.

But it's not just students who will benefit; Cook said the agreement also will provide faculty opportunities to conduct research and build relationships.

Barry Batcheller , ag technology entreprenuer, said Grand Farm and the Red River Valley's technology industry has succeeded because of community support. He noted that one of the first projects his first company worked on was electric underwear requested by a hunter. It didn't sell well, but some of the sales were to people who wanted to see the company succeed — not to wear electric underwear.

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A man in a suit stands at a podium and motions with his arms while in front of a backdrop of green balloons.
Sen. John Hoeven, R-N.D., told a crowd that North Dakota is best positioned to drive advancements in precision agriculture because of its ag productivity, entrepreneurial spirit and ag tech and ag research sectors. Photo taken Aug. 30, 2022, at North Dakota State University.
Trevor Peterson / Agweek

"It's illustrative of the type of support the community gives," he said.

Greg Tehven, CEO and co-founder of Emerging Prairie, also spoke of the importance of community. While he grew up on a farm, he said he spent more time playing farming simulator games in the basement and eating ice cream with his grandma than doing farm work. But he valued the upbringing on a farm and seeing communities come together to solve problems.

"I am so excited for the ability to partner with North Dakota State University, U.S. Department of Agriculture and a community that cares," he said.

The speakers all lauded Hoeven, who is the ranking member of the Senate Agriculture Appropriations subcommittee, with Batcheller saying Hoeven may be the "most impactful" North Dakota citizen because of his involvement in projects as governor and senator that advanced industry in the state.

Hoeven said "ag is always No. 1 for" his staff and office, with his work on ag policy being a top priority.

"That doesn't just benefit our farmers and ranchers," he said. "That benefits every single American, every single day."

Jenny Schlecht is the editor of Agweek and Sugarbeet Grower Magazine. 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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