TechSpark Fargo: Grand Farm project will create the farm of the future

Farm field illustration

For generations, farmers throughout North Dakota have traditionally hired seasonal farm hands to help with planting, harvesting and other jobs. Digital technologies and big data are transforming agriculture. Today, those same farmers need to hire technologists, programmers and data scientists to improve productivity to meet food demands, boost yields to increase profitability, environmentally sustain the land and improve safety. But, according to the consulting firm Accenture, less than 20 percent of acreage today is managed using digital ag tech.

Grand Farm
In West Coast tech corridors 1,800 miles away, technologists, entrepreneurs and venture capitalists are coming up with their next big ag tech ideas. But too often those ideas are disconnected from the farmers, ranchers and agribusinesses the technology is meant to help. We believe meaningful innovation will happen when farmers are a part of the solution.

That’s why Microsoft President Brad Smith joined North Dakota Gov. Doug Burgum at an event today in Fargo to announce that we are partnering with Emerging Prairies on the Grand Farm – a one-of-a-kind partnership between farmers, businesses, government and entrepreneurs. We will be investing $1.5 million in the project and, more importantly, we will bring Microsoft’s technology and the talent of our technologists and data scientists to help realize the vision and ambition of the Grand Farm to be the farm of the future, helping both small family farms and large agribusinesses.

Over the next three years, the Grand Farm strives to provide workers with digital skills to maximize their employability; create high-skilled jobs regionally and globally; support start-up businesses; act as a convenor to drive ag innovation and thought leadership; and bring new businesses to the region through a world-class venture capital program

Our ambition is to partner Microsoft technology, technologists, and data scientists with North Dakota farmers and entrepreneurs to build a world-class leading ag innovation center that showcases the “farm of the future.”

Drone investment
Our TechSpark signature investment in the Grand Farm will leverage projects like a TechSpark North Dakota investment we made earlier this year in unmanned aircraft systems (UAS), which most people know as drones, to provide access to low-cost aerial data imagery. Gov. Burgum, local businesses, universities and economic development organizations in North Dakota have an ambition to be the epicenter of U.S. drone innovation and entrepreneurism.

In April 2019, we granted the University of North Dakota Aerospace Foundation $100,000 in project funding to help create a breakthrough in autonomous UAS operations with transformational benefits for industries such as agriculture, energy and public safety. The grant is helping Airtonomy, a local start-up, fund the development of a proofof concept leveraging Microsoft Azure IoT Edge and artificial intelligence (AI), which is being field tested over the next year to demonstrate its commercial applications in different sectors. Airtonomy (formerly Evolve Analytics) was able to leverage the initial $100,000 funding to secure more than $1.5 million in just a few months.

This is the type of innovation and partnership that we see the Grand Farm sparking in the future.

We also plan on leveraging Microsoft technologies like those used in FarmBeats at the Grand Farm. FarmBeats uses AI in data-driven farming to augment human knowledge and help increase farm productivity and decrease costs. It uses inexpensive IoT sensors, drones, low-cost broadband connectivity using TV white spaces, and vision and machine learning algorithms to help maximize the use of agricultural land. FarmBeats gives farmers precise information about soil temperatures and soil moisture so they know exactly when the best times are for planting, watering and fertilizing, as well as the precise amount of water and fertilizer needed.

As the climate changes, this data becomes even more important. Weather and shifts in planting seasons are new and less predictable. FarmBeats provides an easier way for farmers to improve their agricultural yields, lower their overall costs and reduce the environmental impact of farming.

Rural broadband
Getting data from the farm is extremely difficult given there is often no broadband available on many farms. In the U.S., more than 19 million people living in rural America don’t have access to broadband internet. The farm of the future requires rural broadband.

We believe this is an urgent national problem that can and must be solved. In the summer of 2017 we called for a national effort and set an ambitious goal — to eliminate the country’s rural broadband gap by July 4, 2022. Closing the broadband gap will require a focused and comprehensive solution that combines private sector capital investment in innovative technologies with targeted financial and regulatory support from the public sector. As part of Airband, we have committed to working with partners to provide broadband access to 3 million people.

We need more states to do what North Dakota has done – focus on connecting every part of the state to rural broadband.

Digital skills and employability
Ag tech innovation and broadband-connected farms require the right talent – people who know how to create and use new ag technology.

This starts with students in the region, who need the opportunity to study computer science in high school if they are to succeed in the digital era. But only 45 percent of U.S. high schools teach computer science, according to the nonprofit Microsoft’s Technology and Literacy in Schools (TEALS) program is helping schools across the nation and British Columbia build their own computer science programs through partnerships between teachers and volunteers from the technology sector.

Before TechSpark North Dakota, we had one TEALS school serving seven students in the state. This school year, we’re excited that TEALS volunteers will team teach in 13 high schools in mostly rural areas, serving 136 students. TEALS in Fargo schools are supported by dedicated volunteers and scores of dedicated teachers, who give hundreds of hours of their time to ensure kids have the opportunity to receive computer science education.

The Emerging Digital Academy at the Grand Farm will help bring digital skills to people interested in or working in agriculture. The academy is a coding and robotics school focused on the development of skills necessary in the advanced agriculture industry.

As digital technologies and big data transform agriculture, we need to make sure that farmers are a central part of the solution. They have the knowledge and experience that will enhance the technology that will create the farm of the future to feed more people, increase farm profits, protect the land and improve safety. That’s why we’re excited that the Grand Farm and Microsoft will work with farmers, for farmers, to create the next generation of ag innovation, skilled workers and ag jobs.

If you’re interested in learning more or participating, go to the Grand Farm website.

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