FARGO, N.D. — Microsoft Corp. announced a $1.5 million, three-year investment into the Fargo-based tech firm Emerging Prairie to help build what Microsoft calls the farm of the future at Emerging Prairie’s Grand Farm project.
Microsoft President Brad Smith said the money will help develop a building at the project site, south of Fargo near the town of Horace, N.D. That will include an "academy" for learning and what promoters describe as a "makerspace," for companies that want to invent and share ideas.
Barry Batcheller of Fargo, one of the nation’s leading entrepreneurs in agricultural technology — who more than a year ago originated the idea of developing a fully autonomous farm in Fargo — thanked Smith for putting Microsoft’s "affirmation," putting its good name behind the project. The idea is to develop artificial intelligence and machine learning increasingly into farming technology to make it more productive to feed a world population that will increase to 9 billion people by 2050.
Smith said he expected the majority of the announced funding will be spent in the first half of the three years. A half-million will go into the project right away. He said it will "bring to life the new technology that will really sustain farming into the future and make farmers more productive and profitable." He said the initiative gives companies and others in North Dakota a "head start to create the technology" to serve farmers in North Dakota and around the world.
Microsoft will be only one of many partners in the project, which will involve private enterprise and government.
North Dakota Governor Doug Burgum, who started the Great Plains Software business and eventually sold it to Microsoft and became a top executive there while Smith was the company’s top lawyer, touted the involvement of Smith and Microsoft as an important boost for the Grand Farm project, which has been billed as the region’s first autonomous farm.
Burgum said it goes along with the state’s expertise in unmanned aircraft systems, or drone technology. He talked about a 160-square-mile test area used for collecting agricultural field data using high-speed drones.
Burgum stressed the need to act quickly, and praised the North Dakota Legislature for not over-regulating its development. He credited former Gov. John Hoeven, now one of the state’s U.S. senators, for fostering its development.
Smith said Fargo’s community leaders in ag technology and its heritage with companies like Batcheller’s Appareo, and efforts that have led to more than 700 ag technology jobs in the Fargo area alone.
Smith said Microsoft, a company worth more than $1 trillion and operating in 170 countries, will bring in expertise from around the world and its world headquarters at Seattle.
"It combines two great strengths of the North Dakota economy," he said. "One is around digital skills, in part because of companies like Microsoft, as well as great aviation expertise."
In addition to the money, one of Microsoft’s contributions will be helping create the "ecosystem" of digital education, suppliers and developers.
"One of the many things that excites us about the Grand Farm is that it focuses on technology, it focuses on new businesses, and focuses on providing skills to people so they can go pursue these opportunities" both in businesses and in farming businesses.
He said one of the important things about the Grand Farm is that it "puts farmers at the table and will give farmers a voice" — both locally and from around the world in developing countries.
Smith said there is no reason the Red River Valley of the North can become the hub for the future of agriculture, much like Detroit became known for automobiles and Ohio became an auto parts juggernaut in the past.