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North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announces $10 million match grant for Grand Farm

The money will help build an “Innovation Facility” — a field test center, where researchers and developers will advance“autonomous agriculture” and other technology.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum speaks, flanked by green and blue balloons, for an announcement of the Grand Farm matching grant. Listeners are in blurry silhouette.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, announced that a $10 million matching grant will go to Grand Farm, a pass-through from federal COVID relief funds that was approved in a special session of the North Dakota State Legislature in November 2021. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek
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FARGO, N.D. — North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum on Feb. 14, 2022, ceremoniously announced that the "Grand Farm,” based in Fargo, will receive $10 million matching grant from the Commerce Department.

The money will help build an “Innovation Facility” — a field test center, where researchers and developers will advance“autonomous agriculture” and other technology.

North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, at left, and flanked by white, blue and green balloons, announces a $10 million grant for Grand Farm, faced by agriculture and business leaders.
North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum, left, addresses dozens of legislative and business supporters of the Grand Farm at an event in downtown Fargo, N.D., on Feb. 14, 2022. Burgum announced that Grand Farm would receive $10 million in a pass-through appropriation of federal COVID-19 relief funds to build a new field Innovation Facility, near Kindred or Casselton. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Money for the pass-through grant came through a one-time federal appropriation designed to shore up the state’s economy in the wake of COVID-19. The one-to-one match means Grand Farm could have $20 million to put into the facility. Dirt work could start in 2022 and building construction in 2023, either in the Casselton or Kindred.

“It’s an investment that will further accelerate ag innovation, and it’s going to have a transformative impact on the future of North Dakota and our nation’s agriculture,” Burgum said.

Brian Carroll, director of Grand Farm, speaks in front of a backdrop at ceremony announcing a $10 million grant for the non-profit.
Brian Carroll is director of the Grand Farm Research and Education Initiative, a non-profit, which is a subsidiary of Emerging Prairie, another non-profit. In announcing a $10 million grant, Carroll said the project needs more land and facilities to “energize ag-tech.” Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Brian Carroll, director of the Grand Farm Research and Education Initiative, a non-profit which is a subsidiary of Emerging Prairie, another non-profit, said the project needs more land and facilities to “energize ag-tech.”

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COVID bounce

The announcement was held in the mezzanine level of the Black Building in downtown Fargo, a new “Prairie Den” headquarters for Emerging Prairie and the Grand Farm.

The Black Building, built in 1930, and carrying an art deco sign, contrasts with the towering RDO Building at right, with and the downtown skyway.
The non-profit corporation, Emerging Prairie, and its Grand Farm, are headquartered in the Black Building, flanked at right by the new RDO Building. Grand Farm will lease the Black Building’s mezzanine level from the Kilbourne Group, a real estate group formed by Gov. Doug Burgum, prior to his election in 2016. Burgum on Feb. 14, 2022, announced that Grand Farm had won a $10 million federal-state grant for developing autonomous and other high-tech ag technology. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

Burgum said the federal matching funds were designed for COVID recovery, but because North Dakota’s economy hadn’t faltered, state officials “fought for all the flexibility we could” in how to use it. The Republican-dominated Legislature’s special session decided how to use nearly $1 billion from the funds, making it was one of the most “impactful five days in the history of the state,” and identified the $10 million to enhance autonomous farming work.

State Sen. Ron Sorvaag, R-Fargo, a member of the North Dakota Senate Appropriations Committee, credited Greg Tehven, co-founder of Emerging Prairie, for working toward the grant funding. Sorvaag, who farmed until 1999, said autonomy and other technology makes farming more efficient with inputs, money and labor.

“Our farmers run a lot of dollars through their operations nowadays,” Sorvaag said. “It’s big business. But we all know — that run businesses — at the end of the day, the only thing that counts is the bottom line — what’s left at the end of the day. Technology is the way we can make farming more profitable.”

Similarly, State Sen. Michael Howe, R-Casselton, praised the project for its broad support across the entire state, among branches of governments, and among political parties.

Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, speaks at a podium at the announcement of a $10 million matching grant for Grand Farm.
Mark Watne, a Grand Farm board member, is also a farmer from Velva, North Dakota, and long-time president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, a group often in line with Democratic policies. Watne said technology developed in a new Grand Farm Innovation Facility, using $10 million that will be matched for a total of up to $20 million, will help develop and bring technology that will help farmers. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, in Fargo, N.D. Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The press event drew more than 200 and was emceed by Mark Watne, Grand Farm board member and president of the board of North Dakota Farmers Union. The NDFU is known for its dedication to “family farm” agriculture. Watne, whose family farms near Velva, North Dakota, said U.S. farmers are strong producers and he predicted Grand Farm will be a “tool” to help develop and bring technology from the world to keep them competitive.

Prior to Feb. 14, Emerging Prairie was headquartered in an office above the former King House Buffet. As of Feb. 14, the non-profit has moved next door into the mezzanine level of the Black Building. The 1930s era building is under renovation after being purchased by the Kilbourne Group, which is named for Burgum’s mother’s family.

Burgum is the founder of the Kilbourne Group, which owns the building, which is undergoing a $13 million refurbishing. In his remarks Burgum jokingly alluded to being Emerging Prairie/Grand Farm’s landlord.

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Dozens of supporters of Grand Farm from agriculture, academia and government stand on the Mezzanine or Skyway level of the Black Building, where the Emerging Prairie and Grand Farm will have Fargo offices. In the foreground, a glass wall allows the floor to overlook the building's atrium.
The Emerging Prairie and its Grand Farm subsidiary and supporters gathered Feb. 14, 2022 to hear North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum announce a $10 million federal-state grant for the organization. Emerging Prairie and Grand Farm just moved into the mezzanine floor, with its glass-enclosed atrium, in the historic Black Building, which is undergoing a $13 million renovation. Photo taken Feb. 14, 2022, in Fargo, North Dakota.
Mikkel Pates / Agweek

The new “Prairie Den” space overlooks the atrium in the building and includes an open area in the front for gatherings and events. There is office space for long-term tenants who will partner with the project. Bremer Bank has a spot, as does 50 SouthCapital Advisors LLC, a venture capital fund. There will be places for start-up companies to network and see innovation.

History

In 2018, ag engineering entrepreneur Barry Batcheller suggested North Dakota develop a business center around what he called a “major” — capitalizing on a heritage of ag equipment innovation.

That became Grand Farm.

In 2019, the Grand Farm project started staging activities at a “test site,” a 40-acre parcel near Horace. In 2020, Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue attended a ribbon cutting. The organization is collaborating with North Dakota and Red River Valley grower and research/promotion councils including soybeans, wheat/barley, corn and sugarbeets.

Until now, the Grand Farm has employed about five people and has been focused on events and hosting. Since 2020 Grand Farm has involved 361 projects with 63 collaborating organizations, and more than 80 events and conferences. In 2021 it worked with organizations in 58 countries.

Tehven and Carroll mentioned three notable projects:

  • Trilogy’s farm grid system helps connect devices onto the farm using 5G into the cloud.
  • Sebanto donated a tractor in 2021. The  autonomous tractor — a Kubota — demonstrated in 2021 and will be expanded in 2022 and beyond, perhaps in partnership with others.
  • A hydrogen grid, to be launched this year, BWR Innovations of Fargo, is a self-contained energy source on the farm.

Looking ahead, the grant proposal indicated the site will involve “connectivity types” including 4G, 5G, WIFI, LoRA, LoRaWAN, Low Earth Orbit Satellites, CBRS and WhiteSpace, the grant proposal said. It will integrate the Northern Plains UAS Test Site’s Beyond-Visual-Line-of-Sight system and Vantis system.

Grant quest

Tehven said the quest for the grant started in April 2021, when he met with Sen. Jim Roers, R-Fargo, and Batcheller in Bismarck. Roers identified the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan Act, passed on March 11, 2021, as a potential source of money for Grand Farm. ARPA is also called the COVID-19 Stimulus Package. After that, Grand Farm met with Howe, Sorvaag and others to request $35 million in the special session in November 2021.

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Burgum, in his governor’s budget for the funds, identified $10 million for the purpose, which was the ultimate figure, doubled as a match.

The North Dakota Department of Commerce put out a request for proposal. Grand Farm finished the application in early January 2022. Supporters included the University of North Dakota Research Institute for Autonomous Systems and North Dakota Agricultural Affairs.

A Commerce Department panel chose Grand Farm for the grant. Panel members included Greg Lardy, North Dakota State University vice president for agricultural affairs, as well as representatives from the Bank of North Dakota and the North Dakota Department of Agriculture.

Grand Farm was the only competitor for the money.

To “unlock” the $10 million, Grand Farm must raise a matching $10 million from the private sector. Tehven believes the matching funds have to be raised by June 2023.

“We do have early commitments from interested stakeholders,” he said.

Grand Farm will start a full-scale capital campaign by the second quarter of 2022. Tehven expects the project eventually will become a “self-sustaining enterprise” where income will be associated with the projects themselves and corporate partners.

Search for land

Anticipating the ARPA grant, Grand Farm in 2021 started advertising for proposals from communities within 30 miles of Hector International Airport in Fargo, to determine a new field site. Four initial proposals were whittled to Kindred and Casselton, with final selection expected before the end of March 2022.

Melissa Beach, with the the Casselton Economic Development Commission, in a letter of support for the grant application on Jan. 3, 2022, suggested the site could become a “major tourist attraction with cultural and historical significance, an educational destination and as a venue with the potential to host thousands of people would impact our local economy in a positive manner” in addition to advancements.

Tehven said Grand Farm expects to purchase or acquire long-term lease land by the end of April 2022, with preparation in October 2022 and construction in April 2023.The first phase would be about 80 acres, with an ability to increase to a total of 160 acres, “with the potential to expand the vision even further.”

Tehven and Carroll expect the site to include a technology-enabled classroom, an innovation workshop for prototyping and developing technology and a demonstration space, including a dirt track for demonstrating and testing autonomous and heavy equipment. There will be “innovation plots” for research projects.

Burgum, in the news conference, wondered aloud if the land for the Grand Farm could lie in the floodplain for the F-M Diversion. The $3 billion flood protection diversion is being constructed to be completed by 2026. The governor noted that the area is expected to be flooded roughly once every 20 years, and could be compatible to research. Structures can’t be built in the area and must remain agricultural or wildlife.

“One of those uses could be for ag research,” Burgum said. “This is a rare, rare opportunity to have 30,000 acres that would have been private, back into public,” he said. Burgum — whose family is heavily involved in agribusinesses — said “there never will be that kind of North Dakota Red River Valley farmland ever come available again.”

Mikkel Pates is an agricultural journalist, creating print, online and television stories for Agweek magazine and Agweek TV.
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