The Grand Farm is an exciting initiative in the Red River Valley. Led by Emerging Prairie, Grand Farm aims to capitalize on the region’s potential in the agriculture and technology industries, focusing on creating the farm of the future by developing new opportunities and accelerating change.
By inspiring collaboration among businesses, organizations, and entrepreneurs who will solve issues critical to family farms worldwide, like labor shortages and rising operational costs, Grand Farm plans to help feed the growing world, develop new opportunities for our communities and align organizations to the evolving themes that will accelerate change.
Brian Carroll is the Director of Operations at Grand Farm, and he joins the latest episode of Agriculture Technology Podcast to give more insight into Grand Farm – how it developed, its ongoing goals and mission, and what autonomous farming could look like by 2025.
Check out past episodes and guests – visit the Episode Archive.
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Catch this episode’s complete transcript here:
Tony Kramer: Welcome back to another episode of the podcast. This is episode number 109. Today, we are going to be talking about the Grand Farm. Before we dive into the show, please take a moment to subscribe to this podcast, if you haven't already. You can subscribe to the show on the many different podcasting apps that we're streaming this out to such as Apple's podcast app. We have it on Stitcher, Overcast, SoundCloud as well as many others. While you're out there, drop us a review. We'd love to hear what you think about the show. Lastly, make sure to follow RDO Equipment Co. on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and catch all of our latest videos on YouTube. You can also follow me on Twitter @RDOTonyK.
Now with that, let's get back to the show. I am very excited to welcome Brian Carroll, who is the director of operations with Emerging Prairie. Thanks for joining us on the show today, Brian. To get started, I'd really like to hear a little bit more about you and your background and how you got to where you are today.
Brian Carroll: Thanks, Anthony. I'm really pleased to be here. I grew up in Fargo. I went to Shanley, then went to NDSU and then I had a 22-year career working for a mapping company that started off as NAVTEQ. Then we moved to Nokia and then HERE Technologies. What I learned during that period was that there's a lot of disruptions that come with technology and different change. As we thought about the mapping software of the future, we were really getting geared up for the autonomous world.
As we thought about that, we were looking at the requirements, what it meant from a map standpoint and what we would need to be to get ready for that. Then as I ended my career with HERE Technologies, I jumped into Emerging Prairie. I was really interested in what the future technology would be around autonomous systems and the opportunity to come and be part of the Grand Farm Initiative was really appealing for me.
Tony Kramer: That's a really cool story to hear that. You've been involved in the technology world, going back to stuff with mapping and whatnot. You've really been involved for a long time. To get in with the Emerging Prairie Group and then now to be working on this Grand Farm Project that we're going to be talking about, this is definitely a perfect fit for you here. Before we dive into the Grand Farm, let's talk just a little bit about Emerging Prairie. What is Emerging Prairie, Brian?
Brian Carroll: Emerging Prairie, our mission is to improve the human condition. We do that by connecting entrepreneurs. What we've done over the course of many years is develop many events and programs in order to do that. Every week, we do an event called Million Cups, that brings an entrepreneur on the stage. We simply ask the community, "What can we do to help this entrepreneur and make them more effective in what they do?"
Other events that we do are Fargo TEDx. That's our signature event and the summer, we bring 2000 people to the Civic Center, expose our community to a whole bunch of different ideas and thoughts and inspire people to think about things even bigger than themselves. We have events like just last week we had Cultivate, which we had over 600 people at an ag-tech Conference. We had 55 speakers. People traveled from all over the region, the nation, and actually from the world to join us for that.
What we really wanted to do is put the farmer in the middle of the equation and surround them with people that can make things happen. Technology and then also an opportunity to bring people that can be investors, venture capitalists, as well.
Tony Kramer: I know Emerging Prairie has done a lot of great things over the past number of years. My first experience with emerging Prairie was the very first Drone Focus Conference. It was a very unique, exciting time in the Fargo Moorhead area. Just the amount of technology that's here and then for Emerging Prairie to put on that Drone Focus Conference and to see all the people, all over the nation that came in to attend that conference. It was just a really neat sight.
Then, I've also attended the Cultivate Conference. That's another thing that when it comes to agriculture and technology, the Cultivate Conference is doing a lot of great things. You had mentioned that just a number of weeks ago, back in November is when it was held here. I look forward to the conference again next year. That's just a little bit about Emerging Prairie. What I really want to dive into, Brian here is the Grand Farm. This is one of your big initiatives moving forward. I know I'm really excited to hear more about it and where it all came from and where it plans to go. Where did this idea come from?
Brian Carroll: The idea actually originated from one of our events. It was Million Cups and Barry Batcheller, a local entrepreneur who helps started companies like Appareo, Phoenix International, and then also moved into John Deere Electric Solutions. He was at the stage and in front of 330 people he asked the question, "If we as a community were to declare our major to the world, what would that be?" That was the question that circulated.
What we did is we took the challenge. We brought groups together. We wanted to start to think about, "What would it make sense if we as a community would declare our major?" The answer that came back was really clear after we thought about it. It has to be around ag technology. This is within our DNA. We've grown up in the industry. If we were to really make an impact on the world, it has to be something specifically around that.
What we did is we started to gather people around.
Basically a year and a half ago, we met here in Downtown Fargo and brought a group of stakeholders together and we asked the question, "If we were to answer our major as farm technology, ag technology, what would it take for us to build the farm of the future?" The conversation started and the very next day Kevin and Stacy Byford responded back with a really affirmative answer. That was, "We have a farm for you." There's 40 acres in South Fargo that we would like to start thinking about what that could look like. Essentially what that did, that started the planning process for us.
Tony Kramer: That's really cool to hear. That's one of the things that I think a lot of people don't really understand is the amount of agriculture technology that happens here, not only in the Red River Valley but Fargo itself. You had mentioned a number of companies that are dealing with or are there in that ag technology sector, but the big one that a lot of people might not know is John Deere Electronic Solutions, the StarFire receivers and some of the wedge boxes and flex boxes. They're all manufactured right here in Fargo.
There is a ton of agriculture technology in this area up here in the Fargo, Moorhead area, Minnesota, North Dakota, and Red River Valley. It makes sense like you said when this area was looking to declare our major, what is it? Agriculture technology is just what makes sense and what fits. Along with that idea and how it came about, you got the idea in mind. Now, what's the goal? Where do we want to take Grand Farm?
Brian Carroll: What was really interesting, once we came up with the idea, then the opportunity presented itself. The small business administration, they had an innovation grant that they had out there and we were encouraged to go ahead and apply for it. What that did is it became a forcing function. A forcing function for us to think about what the plan needed to be and what we're trying to impact. The way that we thought about is let's first design this thing around a common set of challenges that we're really aware of.
The first one here in North Dakota in this region is we have a labor shortage. We have a challenge in order to get enough work out on the farm, in order to get crops off and to do all those different labor-intensive activities. The second one that we identified is when you think about the skills, they're going to be needed in the 21st century, especially as we think about the digital transformation. We're going to be in need to be prepared for that. We're going to have to upscale the workforce.
The third one that we'd looked at was the region actually lacks from venture capital. There's so many great startup companies that originate here, but in many cases, they have to go and find funding elsewhere, either in California, on the East coast or Minneapolis, places like that. What we wanted to do is devise a plan around those different challenges and that's where our five pillars came out.
The first one is we have to have a world-class ecosystem. We need to have an ecosystem that really generates itself off of the network. We want to bring regional people in, global people in and find ways in which we can collaborate. That's what Emerging Prairie is designed for. This is what we've done. Our events support that. That was really building on a bright spot. The second pillar that we identified was an innovation platform.
We need to find an opportunity for large organizations, small organizations, research organizations, and also startups to be able to work together in an IP friendly situation and then bring venture capital right into the middle in order to commercialize those ideas to really start to address some of the pain points that are needed in order to get to the farm of the future.
The third one that we recognize is we have to come up with a place where people can work together. This becomes the makerspace. This is the shed that we're talking about. Our first design element around the makerspace was around the Epcot center. We thought, "Wouldn't it be great to have an experimental prototype community of tomorrow, but replace community with pharma tomorrow and have a place where people can come, be inspired, think about the future, and develop things together that put us onto that path?"
The fourth one that we identified was upskilling the workforce. We have to find ways to bring programs in order for people to get ready for the digital transformation. I didn't mention in my introduction, but when I worked at HERE Technologies we actually closed the facility in 2017. What happened was we went out to the workforce and many of our players, our teammates, had to get additional skills in order to reenter. Those types of disruptions are going to continue to happen. There's more and more disruptions that are out there and we have to have mechanisms in place for people to get quickly upskilled.
The fifth one is around a policy, we have to find ways in which we can use the Grand Farm, we can use our opportunity here in North Dakota, to think about what policy and regulations will need to be as we move into the timeless world. That's what we did. We put together these five strategies around that plan, and this is made up of a whole bunch of different goals that we're utilizing in order to move forward. There's definitely a lot of idea and a lot of thought that has gone into this.
It all starts out with the idea, you come up with these goals and these five pillars that you were talking about. Moving forward from there, what does the timeline look like? I'll take three specifics. The first one is the business accelerator. When I talk with the innovation platform, what we're trying to do is recruit a business accelerator into our community. That accelerator will bring venture capital into the early-stage companies. In order to do that, we're building partnerships.
One of our first partners was Bremer Bank. Our second partner was Microsoft, we just announced that back in the October timeframe. What we're looking for is ways in which we can attract that business accelerator into the region, and we hope to have that by the 1st of the year. The second one I talked about the accelerating or upscaling the workforce. We're going to create our code academy, is going to be called Emerging Digital Academy, and we're going to launch that in April.
This will be an opportunity for people to come in learn programming in four months and get jobs that will require software programming. We're really excited about that, we expect to have 20 students after our first year, 50 students and these students will now be able to basically fill the gaps that we have within the local market to fill these jobs. We looked at statistic as we thought about the program, there's over 1,000 jobs are out there that require computer programming.
If you take the aggregate of all the universities and the systems around our region, there's about 200 graduates that are coming out. There's a gap, there's a demand that's happening. In order for us to take advantage of this, we need to be able to provide those inputs into the process. The third one that we're really focused on is the Grand Farm test site itself. We actually have a trailer out there right now and a porta-potty. We've done a whole bunch of different events, And what we want to do is we want to replace those temporary structures and build the first makerspace.
We want to do that in the April timeframe. What we're doing right now is building partnerships around that. We have great partners, Microsoft being one of our copartners, with their investment is now giving us an opportunity to go out and to try to find additional partners but also to multiply that investment that they made.
Tony Kramer: With all those pieces of the puzzle that are coming together slowly and you said that you're hoping here this spring, April timeframe, with a couple of completion dates or hopeful dates, what does completion look like in your mind? When is the Grand Farm up and running?
Brian Carroll: It's never going to be complete, it's going to come in phases. How we thought about this. Now remember back to the Epcot Center, the first phase is going to be the farms in North America, we want to have a makerspace that's designed for us to test and prototype around that.
The second phase is going to be around farms of Africa and India, places that are a little bit more remote, things that can be sustainable. The third phase is going to be farms of the future on Mars and beyond. We really want to make this much larger. When we think about it, we're just going to build it into a bunch of different Lego blocks. The first one is going to be the farms in North America, we want to have that makerspace.
We want to think big, and when we think big like that, we're looking for attraction of some really, really important companies and organizations that we want to be a part of that. My dream is to have that being done here in this region and being like that magnet, that epicenter of all that different activity as applies from a farming standpoint.
Tony Kramer: That is really cool to hear that the comment you make about the Grand Farm never really being done. There's always more to add. You keep going back to the idea of the Epcot Center. Back when I was in sixth grade I believe in school, got to go to Disney World with my family and experience Epcot. That is truly a very cool place. For the Grand Farm to be modeled after that, it's a really neat idea. Let's take it right now, 2020 let's move out five years. 2025, where are we at in the Grand Farm and what’s to look forward five years from now?
Brian Carroll: What I want to see at the Grand Farm in three years, I want to see the impacts of all the different activities that we have. To me, success is going to be gauged on how many companies we've created, how many startup activities. If we have the business accelerator that comes in and we have all this different engagement, we have 30 new companies created, 40 new companies, 50 new companies. How many people have been educated? By the time we get five years out, we could have about 200 people that could be in a dramatically different position in terms of their skills, and doing different jobs as well.
Then the other piece is, how many collaborations are being set up? If you think about technology, and you think about how we're moving forward, it's all about how you move into this more agile process. What I see the great advantage of the Grand Farm is you bring organizations together, and then you bring the grower and put the grower right into the middle, and what you can do is you can start to move away from that old waterfall-type of techniques where there's a lot of product development, where you can get into a more agile, quick iterations and you use the feedback from the grower to help inform the technology and the startups in order to do that.
The other great advantage that we see is being in this region, we're not going to develop technology and then look for the problem. We're going to find the problem first, we're going to be really aware of that, and then we'll develop technology in order to solve that problem. That's where our greatest advantage is. When I look at in five years from now, I'm going to look at the byproducts, how many companies that we created, how many people we've educated, and how many problems that we solved.
Tony Kramer: It's a great way to look at it and you've got some measurables there, the education behind it, and the startup companies, everything like that. It's really great to hear that you guys have thought out long-term, you do have a full structured plan to go along with the Grand Farm. Now, I know working with the Grand Farm, Emerging Prairie, and you've even named a number of other businesses and players that are involved, but who are these key players? Who is really involved with what's going on with the Grand Farm and really being a part of that initiative to move it forward?
Brian Carroll: We're calling it our barn-raising partners. Just in October, we announced that Microsoft has made the Grand Farm one of its signature projects, and so they've made a commitment of $1.5 million over three years. Really what they're looking for is to use that investment and see how we can make that into more and more partnerships. That's the key first one. Also, when we talk about the business accelerator, we've partnered with, again, Bremer Bank, but also the Bank of North Dakota, Commerce from North Dakota as well, the USDA, groups like that want to be involved with it.
What we're doing is we're actively recruiting them into the region. Those will be the partnerships as well. Then we have a whole host of people that are really just interested in what this project is, how they can be a part of it and what their future will look like. That's what we want. We want this to be an open platform. We want as many people involved in different ways and try to keep this as engaged as possible.
One of the strong points that we have is our steering committee. We've been able to get to a point where our steering committee is led by really some of the strongest minds in the industry. Our leader is Lauris Molbert from Kilbourne. He's been helping us with that. We're getting just amazing amount of guidance from the steering committee, which is helping us think, but also helping us identify what those opportunities are.
Tony Kramer: That's great to hear that you have all of these companies and individuals in place to help steer the direction of it and really be a part of the initiative to push the Grand Farm forward. You had mentioned back a little earlier about a trailer and a porta-potty out there on the site. With that being out there, there's got to be some sort of a success story that you can share the infancy stages of Grand Farm. Is there something that you can talk about, about the Grand Farm that just really puts a smile on your face for as early as we are in this?
Brian Carroll: Yes. What I love is we started doing events. Our first event was in May, or actually in April, in which we had Secretary of Agriculture, Sonny Perdue, come out and tour the Grand Farm, and that was our initiation. Then what we've done is we built the road map of different engagements in order to create awareness. My favorite one to date was we actually had a school from Cheney Middle School in West Fargo come out, and there's about 30-something students that were out there.
I had my presentation already, I was all prepared. I got into one sentence, and then every hand was raised. They just started peppering me with questions. They were saying, how would we farm on Mars? How would we farm on an asteroid? How would we do these things? It just occurred to me that the thesis that we had around the Epcot Center, a place where people could think about the future really is confirmed with that by bringing young people there and thinking about what that future would look like.
Another really cool event that we had was FCC Chairman, Ajit Pai was out. What he did is he talked about the importance of communication and telecommunication. As he left, he said, “Okay, I love this concept. Is there anything that I can do to help you guys?” We're like, “Okay, could you get a meeting with Elon Musk?” He's like, “Well, maybe, we'll see what I can do about it.” It's really a community effort. As people come on to the Farm, they really understand kind of what the opportunity is, what the vision. Also, that can all be a part of it as well, that's what I love about it.
Tony Kramer: That is really cool to hear. Just learning so much about the Grand Farm and your ideas and visions, and really, what it's going to become. I've enjoyed this conversation, learning more about it. I really look forward to watching it grow and really come to life in South Fargo. I just want to thank you, Brian, for taking the time to do this. If somebody wants to learn more about Grand Farm, or maybe Emerging Prairie, who can they talk to or where can they go?
Brian Carroll: Please directly come to me, Brian Carroll. My email address is firstname.lastname@example.org. We have a website, grandfarm.com, so here's a way to connect with us. Or just come down to the Prairie Den, our coworking space, downtown Fargo. Love to be able to talk to you and have a coffee.
Tony Kramer: This is a very neat place here, and we are in the Prairie Den recording this episode. It's a very neat place to be here and see. Thanks again, Brian, for doing this. I really appreciate you taking the time out of your busy schedule to tell us a little bit more about the Grand Farm and share with our listeners on what we have to look forward to here in the Fargo Moorhead community.
Brian Carroll: Thanks, Anthony.