The Future Of Farming Roundtable Discussion

Written by: Andrew Jason

Moderated by Brian Carroll

For years, the Red River Valley has played an integral role in the agricultural ecosystem. Technology and methods developed in our backyard have changed the way farming is done around the world. The Grand Farm hopes to continue that innovation. The team at Emerging Prairie has developed five different ways they are hoping to create a symbol around Grand Farm that will bring people together in collaboration. 

1. Ecosystem
2. Innovation Platform
3. Maker Space
4. Upscaling the workforce
5. Policy

Over the rest of the magazine, we will be exploring how the Grand Farm hopes to shape the future of automation in agriculture. However, to get started, we wanted to ask the question: why does the Red River Valley have the right ecosystem to get this off the ground?

Meet the Participants

Jane Schuh, Vice President for Research and Creative Activity
Carl Peterson, Peterson Farms Seeds
Chase Nelson, A farmer of corn, wheat, soybeans and Aronia Berries and lives in Amenia, North Dakota.
Brian Carroll
Brian Carroll 
Director of Operations at Emerging Prairie
Chris Johnson

*Not pictured: Craig Rupp, CEO of Sabanto, a farming-as-a-service company performing row-crop operations using advanced autonomous equipment. 

Q&A Discussion

Carroll: Barry Batcheller introduced the Grand Farm at One Million Cups in March 2017. He challenged the community and said, “What is our major?” When we thought about it, we went through a whole bunch of bad and good ideas and landed on ag tech. The question is why would this region make sense for this type of thing and is this the right time to do it as a community?

Peterson: If you looked at technology adoption in agriculture around the country, this region is about as quick to adapt to technologies as any other. I’d even say quicker than most. South Dakota might have an argument, but most of the rest of the country doesn’t. 

Schuh: I’ve heard that as well. What makes the difference, do you think, Carl?

Peterson: Large fields make a difference.

I think farmers are a little more progressive here and I think it’s of necessity. This is a pretty unforgiving place to farm.

Schuh: I have a friend who does wheat pathogen work and she’s made the same comment. She’s from Puerto Rico, did her graduate work in Nebraska, worked for NDSU as a wheat rust pathologist for a number of years before taking a position with Cornell in international agriculture. She commented to me that she thought farmers were incredibly smart here and more willing to take up new technology than anywhere else she had been. I don’t think she was trying to pull the wool over my eyes to make me feel good. We do have a very educated population.

Johnson: I have my mentors tell me that. He used this exact same phrase, “You have 20 minutes a year to get the gumbo in.” What he was saying was is that our window is very small.

You asked about why here. Fields are large and flat. We’re not extremely populated so you can get from one to the other in a short period of time. I look at past innovations. Four-wheel drive tractor was pretty much invented here. 

I look at how the first auto steer system cost about $40,000 and, in a short time, the cost went down to around $4,000. Everyone has at least one now and I happen to have five.

I look at the first computer that I bought, a TRS80. It was very expensive and didn’t do a whole lot of stuff. Now my phone probably has more computing capability than that did.

Carroll: We had a meeting with Microsoft, and it was Sandi Piatz, Randy Gerhold and Taya Spelhaug. We’re having a conversation and at the end I realized that all three of them grew up on a farm. You’re talking about senior leaders all growing up in that industry. I don’t think there are too many companies out there in which you would see that level of understanding or engagement.

Schuh: We are all talking about who we know, how we know them and how many ways we’re connected. That connectedness helps get over the energy of activation on a lot of things. You have networks that are already in place. North Dakota is a small place where you know everybody. People say, “I know so and so from some little town in North Dakota.” I’m like, “Who is it? I probably know them.” If I don’t, I know someone who does.

If I’m getting the sales pitch from a salesperson who’s trying to promote a new technology, that’s different than my neighbors telling me, “I just put one on my tractor, and it’s working great.”

Carroll: Chase, anything from your perspective?

Nelson: I’m just listening and thinking of the generational aspect. When auto steer came out, I was in the fifth grade and I was running a tractor without auto steer. Then sixth, seventh grade, I all of the sudden had auto steer and life was good and I wasn’t getting yelled out for making hoops in the field. My age group that’s coming into farming, we’re starting to get to the point where we take over. I think we’re more apt to try these things. 

Carroll: Are there any constraints that you see in our region? 

Schuh: Traditionally, venture capital has been tougher to get in North Dakota. There are not a lot of big inputs for cash so to try and get a good idea off the ground may be difficult. We were just talking about the tinkerers, the people who are the creatives. However, they may not be the CFOs, CEOs or the COO’s. That’s not necessarily their skillset. Their ideas may need to have some support to plug into the right people.

Peterson: This is irrelevant to the question really, it’s just the whole concept of we’re going to burn through 3, 5, 10, 15, 40 million dollars in the next three to five years and then we might get something that comes out of it. That just gives me the willies.

But that’s what it is. Our conservative nature here might inhibit us a little bit from those kind of farther out type ventures.

Johnson: I don’t know, I don’t think that money is an issue. You have companies like Melroe, Wil-Rich, Steiger and American Crystal that started on nothing. It’s other issues rather than money. If you have a good product, it’ll attract.

Peterson: Those were bootstrap kind of things and that’s different from a moonshot tech. The tech thing is a different paradigm than, “I’m going to build this out in my shop and see if it works.”

Carroll: When we thought about The Grand Farm, we thought about how we’re going to basically have to feed two billion more people on the planet. That led us to think about some of the past challenges that we’ve had. So someone like Norman Borlaug came to mind in terms of being an early pioneer. And that kind of got me excited. It got the team actually excited to think that there’s an opportunity to make that type of impact.

Do you ever think about what your role in the industry is around that and how to solve a major world problem like that?

Peterson: We spend a lot of time thinking about the fact that, on the very basic level, why do farmers exist? Farmers exist to feed people, right? Sometimes you get down in the weeds and think, “I’m just doing this routine stuff.” But no, we’re part of a system that feeds the world. We have to be able to feed all of those people. And not just people in Fargo. We need to grow this food cheap enough that the poorest people in the world can afford to feed their families as well.

Schuh: Absolutely. Areas like sub-Saharan African are where the people need to be able to get food, disease- and drought-resistant crops with higher yield. It’s not always just about those of us who are food-sufficient.

Peterson: Right. I’m just going to be politically incorrect a little bit. If the fruits and nuts people succeed in limiting access to genetic engineering, CRISPR, gene editing and those kinds of things, it’s not the mom in Cleveland who is going to starve. It’s the people in Africa who are going to suffer. We have a responsibility to them as well. Now, automation itself, I’m not sure if it necessarily leads to production increases but more of a productivity increase. Some of the other digital technologies around fertility, water utilization and those kinds of things do have potential to increase production. Still the major driver from Norman Borlaug and everyone else is crop genetics.

Crop genetics has been the driver of our production increases over the last 75 years. And it will continue to be, but automation can help enable that.

Johnson: You asked a few minutes ago about what’s a disadvantage up here. We’re further from population centers. The prices of our products are lower here than it is in New Orleans or Cedar Rapids, Iowa. 

And it does get cold. We can’t do year round. So we’re different from a factory. A factory can start and stop basically when it wants to or when it has a demand. We don’t have that choice. Our factory starts in May and it ends in November.

Norman Borlaug
For those not familiar with Norman Borlaug, he was a plant pathologist who graduated with a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Over his career, he worked to solve a number of wheat production problems that were limiting wheat cultivation in Mexico. His work kicked off what is known as the Green Revolution and dramatically increased yields around the world. He is often credited with saving more than a billion lives because of his groundbreaking research.  

Schuh: As a potential test bed for agricultural technologies, if you look at what North Dakota produces as commodities versus an Iowa, for instance, we’ve got a huge range of crops in our commodities system that a lot of the places don’t. Just that diversity makes us a better place to test some of these concepts. There’s a lot more things we can test it on. 

We don’t think about that enough or how we are connected to other places in the world that may have similar climate or disease profiles. When I think about who our NDSU researchers and local businesses are collaborating with locally and internationally, it really hits home that North Dakota can lead in this area globally. Already we have students coming to get Master’s degrees at North Dakota State so that they can bring best practices in technology and policy for both traditional and new technologies adapted in places as diverse as Russia, Puerto Rico and Chile. 

Carroll: There’s a movie on Netflix called The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind and it’s about this kid in Africa who was able to create a windmill to bring water onto the field and what that did for that community. That was the first time my son Quinn actually was like, “Wait, this is some of the stuff that you guys are doing, except on a macro level.” It was pretty cool because it does have a global impact when we think about the food water scarcity that’s out there. This type of technology could be an enabler for it. 

Nelson: It’s hard to get guys out to our area to do the work that we do. This autonomous farm potentially could fix that issue because you don’t need those people out there to run this equipment.

More productivity means you’re going to produce more because you can get more done in the time than we are allotted.

Carroll: We’re trying to take a lean stigma approach to the processes and trying to pull as much cost out. When I think about what we’re trying to do with some of these different tools, there’s such a high cost in order to farm now. There are a lot of inefficiencies within the process. If there’s a way that you can take some of that stuff out and focus more on the profitability, even ahead of some of the different yields, that might be an opportunity that we have here as well. 

Rupp: There’s a labor shortage and then there’s a time shortage. Farmers just can’t get the labor for a short period of time. We find some opportunities where the window, especially outdoors, is so short, when they do harvest, they have to turn around and do some tillage. That window is so short that they can’t get all the fall tillaging done that they want.

Meanwhile, they’re spending all their energy trying to do the harvest. 

Peterson: I’m just responding to the comment about efficiency versus yield. The efficiency is fine, but regardless of how much cost you can squeeze out of the system, farmers’ unit of production is bushels. Farmers like to talk about cost per acre. You know what? Unless you’re going out of business, you’re not selling acres. You’re selling bushels, pounds, tons or whatever. Really, the biggest lever you have to lower your cost of production is to increase your yields.

You hear in tough economic times people talk about cutting their cost but they end up cutting yields, and they end up going backwards instead of forwards.

Carroll: I think one of the things that Craig Rupp did at One Million Cups that I thought was remarkable is he talked about the new economic model, especially as farming as a service, and lowering the barrier points for people. Craig, could you describe Sabanto’s farming as a service and what your plans are for this year? 

Rupp: We’re going out this week to attempt to plant 10,000 acres. We have the acres lined up all the way from; it looks like it’s going to be Kansas up to Canada. I’m going to be out for the next two months living out of a truck and hauling a planter up to fill the field. It turns out we’re doing some tillage as well. We’re also looking at maybe even doing some field operations for some sugar beet farmers.

We have IP that can guide a tractor and pull and implement. Long term, we want to do some applications and then start taking on that harvest. When you talk about The Grand Farm, one thing that I wanted to add is that it’s great for developing technology, but bare in mind that it’s not going to go anywhere unless it’s capable of being productized in terms of easy licensing agreements or IP that can go and actually be used. I’ve done it. If I find a technology that can solve some problems, I want to use it. I want to take it on the road and use it commercially.

Carroll: My father-in-law has 400 acres in southern Minnesota and there’s a chance to lease another 80 acres so my brother-in-law and I are going to go into business and we’re going to go ahead and plant probably soybeans and corn. We can do that because my father-in-law has old equipment, but when you think about someone from Fargo going into a community, along with my brother-in-law who lives in Minneapolis, if it wasn’t for that equipment that’s already there, there’s no way we could have made that work. Because it’s available and we can do that, it’s relatively simple.

I see that as potential as things move forward with the ability to create lower cost options, subscription as a service type of thing in which more and more people can be potentially involved with this type of activity. 

Peterson: I farm the same way we farmed forever, but I don’t have a big planter or big combine because I have neighbors who have fabulous equipment and are really good at running it. I hire them to till this field and plant this field and somebody sprays it, so the farming service is kind of what I’m doing already. It works really, really well for me. I get what you’re saying, but we’ve used custom harvesters for 30 years and not exclusively, but I think there’s great potential in what you’re talking about just for better utilization of equipment. 

Carroll: When the average person thinks of automation, they think of jobs being displaced. When you look at automation, how can the general public get excited about some of these concepts that we’re talking about when there might be a connection to job transformation or job losses?

Johnson: For welding, a robot doesn’t get tired and it generally – when it’s set up right – is perfect. It doesn’t get tired, sick and it doesn’t come in hung over. So instead of the person who’s physically stick welding, for example, he will probably run the robot and probably not only one, but several.

Schuh: Working on a farm is dangerous with a fatality rate seven times higher than the average of all other jobs* because of the dirty, dull and dangerous jobs that happen on farms and the long hours that farmers put in. You’re not at your sharpest when you’ve been running 20-hour days and it’s 10 at night and you’re trying to get the last stuff done for the day. That’s one of the aspects that I think automation can help with, as well.

*This is a Workforce Safety & Insurance statistic from 2011, the most recent data listed on WSI’s site.]

Peterson: But to start with, you’re talking about the down and dirty jobs, those are the last to get automated, right? Fixing a broken cultivator frame in the mud, there’s not a robot to do that. The robot is sitting in the nice clean cab driving up and down the field.

Nelson: You still need guys for that purpose, but you need less of them.

Schuh: But the technology allows you to monitor the grain bins so that nobody’s falling off the ladder.

Nelson: They can focus on a certain job. I could be in the combine and that could be behind me digging and I don’t have to worry about doing that after combining. It would affect productivity.

Carroll: So it sounds like people who are in the industry see great opportunities for automation but think about a reader who potentially sees their job turning into a robot. Do you see any problems in terms of getting people kind of centered on what the problem is and how this can be used to address it? Or could it be misconstrued that this could be a way in which jobs can change and be reformatted?

Johnson: That. What you just said.

Peterson: We have a labor shortage here, but we’re working with a labor shortage nationwide until all the robots come and nobody has to work anymore, which is probably not happening in my lifetime.

Nelson: I mean you’re not going to make everyone happy with it. There’s going to be those guys who are good at the job who are going to be upset that they might potentially lose that job but it gives them an opportunity to learn new skill sets and maybe they’ll learn how to run a robot.

Schuh: It goes back to what Carl said a while ago. What’s the purpose of a farmer? To feed people. If we can do it with the labor shortage that we have, if we can more efficiently and effectively pull those bushels off the field and get them to have a safe source of nutrients for people, feeding the people is what we’re doing.

North Dakota Farm Stats

N.D. farm operations: 26,364
N.D. farms of 2,000 or more acres: 6,721
U.S. farm operations: 2,042,220
U.S. farms of 2,000 or more acres: 85,127
N.D. acres of farmland: 39,341,591
U.S. acres of farmland: 900,217,576
U.S. average size of farm: 441 acres
N.D. average size of farm: 1,492 acres
Estimated market value of land and buildings average per farm: $2,546,783
Estimated market value of all machinery and equipment average per farm: $375,872

*Stats according to 2017 Census of Agriculture

Carroll: We’ve kind of touched on this topic a couple of times but I’ll just kind of restate the question. One of the biggest problems or challenges that we have in our state is the workforce shortage. If you think about automation, it can fill these jobs, but also replace jobs, so there’s a little bit of a balance that takes place. Do you think overall automation will hurt or help the workforce shortage in the state? 

Nelson: I don’t think it can hurt it just because we have that shortage. I think it’s going to help.

Peterson: I have a neighbor. He had a brand new John Deere planter. It was a Sunday afternoon, he thought, “I’m going to go ahead and start planting.” But he drove up to back up to his planter, he put it in reverse, and the tractor wouldn’t go in reverse. Years ago, you’d get underneath and you’d bang on some stuff and wiggle around and you’d get it to go in reverse. He had to wait until Monday until he could get a tech. That was a simple thing. But when you get automation and multiple systems and redundancies and all that, the kind of guy you need might actually be harder to find.

Nelson: It is frustrating when you can’t fix something yourself because you don’t have the program to plug into it so you have to sit there and wait.

Peterson: We’ve come a long way from the 900 Versatile where the shifter came off in my hand. You went, “Let’s see, I’ve got a pipe wrench and a 8 pound sledge, I can fix it.”

Johnson: I see autonomous replacing jobs in California where they’re hand picking stuff. Where they use a lot of labor and maybe the robot could look at a strawberry and decide not to pick this one, pick that one and so on. 

Nelson: I think of our aronia bushes. We hand pull all weeds around every single one of them. If I could have a Roomba do that for me, I’d be pretty happy.

Schuh: If you look at the big picture, you may be replacing this person’s job and that’s a big deal for that person at the time. It may change what they’re doing in their life and where they do it. In the history of the history, we turn over jobs and types of jobs. It’s the evolution of work and I don’t think that you can put the brakes on being able to do the job better. I don’t think that’s ever worked and I don’t think that it will in this instance.

Carroll: Maybe there’s a benchmark or an example within the oil and energy sector in western North Dakota. Six-seven years ago, there used to be man camps full of people that were just doing real labor-intensive work. That wasn’t sustainable, especially with the fluctuations of the prices. It appears that energy has really taken a lot of automation, a lot of efficiency within that, which has created a higher skill job but also reduced the amount of intense labor that was needed within that.

Think about people who have been working in the industry for 20-30 years. Automation becomes kind of personal to them, is there anything we can do to educate the public? Especially as young people or even older people are coming into jobs and thinking about what they need to do in order to work in the digital age?

Schuh: We are in a really good area because, particularly in agriculture, we’re early adopters if it makes sense for the bottom line. Farmers are really practical in that, I don’t know that I’ve ever been in a thesis defense, for example, that I haven’t asked the kid, “Why should I care about this? Why should the farmer care about this?” And when we’re talking agricultural production, that answer better have a component of sustainability. And by sustainable, I mean that it can allow my kid to farm our land and have a good way of life. 

Carroll: Chase, any observations?

Nelson: As far as the education aspect, my wife teaches at Northern Cass and she teaches preschool there and they’re already learning how to do coding. It’s already in education. We talked about the evolution of work. They know it’s going to happen. The fact that they’re teaching coding so early means that kids are going to look at technology as a job. Even when I went to school, we didn’t do anything with technology as far as learning how to do that type of thing. 

Schuh: Work and how we do work is always evolving.

Carroll: We talked about why this region is maybe the right spot for this to occur, could it be because we are used to this level of change? Thinking in terms of Northern Cass, maybe that isn’t as prevalent within the country as it might be in this region in terms of accepting efficiencies in automation.

Schuh: I’ll give a plug for our education system in K-20. I don’t know that I see people really appreciating how good our schools are in North Dakota. I mean even rural schools that maybe you don’t have a fantastic range of extracurricular activities, but our kids sure know how to read. They know how to write. They know how to do math pretty darn well. 

Peterson: I completely agree with that, but I also think we need to look at the social structure that we have in this region as opposed to much of the rest of the country. My sister and brother-in-law were teachers in California. Yes, we have problems that break your heart when you hear about them, even in small schools, but we have a higher proportion of intact families who are pushing and getting kids ready to school and are reinforcing than a lot of parts of the country. 

Carroll: Craig, is there anything that you’d like to interject based off some of the topics that we’ve had here?

Rupp: Farmers are going to have to have another skillset. I read this story once about how there used to be a lot of piano tuners in the world and when the record player came out, a lot of music was now at your disposal. A lot of piano tuners suddenly found themselves out of a job because people were getting rid of their pianos. It’s not like jobs are going to go away, they’re going to have to develop new skill sets.

A lot of farmers that I’ve dealt with in the past, there’s always the grandfather, father and then there’s always someone younger who is in charge of the IT, GPS system, mapping or agronomy. I just think it’s another skillset that they’re going to have to acquire and I don’t think it’s going to be a problem.

Carroll:  We think about the ecosystem and start looking at specific gaps in the marketplace, especially from an automation standpoint. Are there any real obvious ones that you can see in which automation can help? 

Rupp: For the likes of me, I have no idea why agronomists and people taking agriculture in college aren’t required to do two semesters of programming Python work. 

If I was the Dean of Agriculture at NDSU, next semester all agronomists and anyone in agriculture should have two semesters of programming language.

Peterson: We hire a fair number of agronomists and I don’t think any of them can program in Python. What would they be able to do for us that they can’t now?

Rupp: Right now, most farmers look at data but the only toolbox they have is Excel. There are some amazing things you can do with Python and it’s a very easy language to learn. Elementary kids are learning it. What’s going to happen is they’re going to figure out something because they have the ability and they’re going to understand how easy it is to program and start doing things themselves and create IP. 

Peterson: I don’t know anything about Python, but our agronomists are working with precision Ag programs like SMS and, of course, Climate.

Rupp: But the problem is you’re always limited by what the tool gives you. If you want to punch the data, you want to look at the data from a certain perspective, you’re going to have to wait until someone like Climate or another software, they’re going to have to implement it themselves and then give that to the farmers. I think it would be very valuable if they had the tools. You know what’s going to happen? These kids are going to sit around a table, they’re going to come up with a neat idea and it’s going to require a little software programming. How do they do it now? You have to wait until some computer science kid who happens to have an agriculture background comes along.

Schuh: That’s an interesting point, Craig. Maybe it’s a track in the agronomy field because it’s probably not for every kid that goes through, but for someone who is looking to maybe do a little deeper dive into data analytics. You may not need every worker to have that capability, but it could really be a jump forward to have someone with that skill set in an operation.

Share This Article