HORACE, N.D. — A chunk of land near Horace could play a pivotal role in the future of farming — a future where actual farmers may be hard to find.
The spot just east of exit 54 on Interstate 29 south of Fargo is the site of a research project that aims to explore the boundaries of autonomous farming and establish by the year 2025 an agricultural operation that is farmed, maintained and managed 100% by machines.
Brian Carroll is director of the project, as well as director of operations at Emerging Prairie, a Fargo nonprofit group that promotes entrepreneurial enterprise through programming and networking events.
The project, known as the Grand Farm initiative, held a ribbon-cutting ceremony in late April. The initiative will involve thousands of people and unspecified millions worth of capital investment from government and private contributions, Carroll said.
The initiative has a number of strategic parts, including a "makerspace" — a building and some land used for hands-on creativity, according to Carroll.
He described the facility as a place where individuals, universities, corporations, or even high school students, can explore opportunities for autonomous activities. Backers say the building could be operational in three or four years, perhaps sooner if fundraising goes well.
Ag tech entrepreneur Barry Batcheller of Fargo first brought up the idea of a Grand Farm at a 1 Million Cups entrepreneurial speaking event in March 2017, saying that a fully autonomous farm could be possible by the year 2025.
Batcheller has a storied career, playing key roles in Steiger Tractor Inc., Phoenix International Corp., and Appareo Systems, an aviation and agricultural products development company. A North Dakota State University engineering graduate, Batcheller has been instrumental in creating hundreds of engineering jobs in the community.
Batcheller, who is a technical, marketing and business adviser for the Grand Farm project, said it will complement the state’s unmanned aerial system development, including a drone park in Grand Forks. The state recently was allowed participation in an integration pilot program, which contemplates integrating unmanned systems into common uses.
Speaking at a launch party for the Grand Farm initiative on Monday, May 6, Batcheller said the Fargo region has been a leader in developing agricultural technology, and he said the autonomous farm initiative can further that tradition.
What happened in Silicon Valley, Batcheller said, "can happen here."
Kevin Biffert, of Horace, has donated the lease of land for Grand Farm. Biffert is president of operations of Korber Medipak Systems of NA-Fargo Automation Division.
With degrees from the North Dakota State College of Science and University of North Dakota, Biffert worked at 3M in Wahpeton, N.D., and in 1996 founded Fargo Automation, which builds on autonomous equipment for medical device companies and the pharmaceutical industry.
Biffert sold Fargo Automation to German-based Korber Solutions in 2017, but still works for the company. After the sale, his family bought 45 acres of land near Horace, hoping to create a “tech park.”
Biffert said he thinks half of that land might become covered with buildings, while the rest could be used for field testing for the autonomous farming initiative.
The Grand Farm building will include a large conference room as well as several work spaces for small businesses and entrepreneurs to collaborate on projects, share tools and knowledge, and launch ventures, Biffert said.
Biffert also owns other land in the area, which he said could be used to simulate the movement of equipment from field-to-field, which is common in farming today and one of the unknowns for autonomous farming equipment use.
The Grand Farm initiative got a boost on April 27, when U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue was on hand for a ribbon-cutting ceremony.
About 75 backers of the futuristic farming project gathered at the rural Horace property after a farm policy roundtable. Perdue was flanked by a group of North Dakota Republicans, including Gov. Doug Burgum, and Sens. John Hoeven and Kevin Cramer.
Perdue told the Grand Farm backers that the project will be important for the noble work of “producing feed for a growing, hungry world.”
Hoeven said the initiative will "bring precision agriculture to the next level." Burgum said it will “show the world a path forward and show what North Dakota can do.”