When William Aderholdt looks at a farm, he doesn’t just see rows of crops or hulking combines — he sees the future.
Aderholdt is the program manager at Grand Farm, the future-farming test site near Fargo that’s poised to help usher in a new generation of agriculture. For now, Aderholdt explains, the test site isn’t much more than 40 acres and a tent — but it’s already working with NDSU researchers on using drones for better weed detection. Other partners and projects include the U.S. Department of Agriculture and CHS, the global agribusiness company.
For now, when Aderholdt speaks about the kinds of projects at Grand Farm, he talks about drones and mapping crops, finding weeds and making farming more efficient. But with plans in place to expand the farm soon, Aderholdt said there’s far more in store. He talks excitedly about what the decades ahead could bring in the field — no pun intended — and sees far lower labor costs. In an earlier interview this year, he spoke excitedly about the far-flung possibility of farming on the moon or Mars.
"I can't speak to what we're planning for '21 yet, because no one's locked in for sure yet,” Aderholdt said in September of next year’s work. “But I could foresee some autonomous tests."
Grand Farm sprung to life under the umbrella of Emerging Prairie back in 2017, quickly gaining traction and funding — and notably a $1.5 million investment from Microsoft late last year. At the beginning of this year, Aderholdt said he wasn’t sure if tests would be scuttled by the pandemic. But partners like the USDA, NDSU and CHS jumped in, and Grand Farm has been hosting events all summer (socially distanced, Aderholdt stressed) showcasing their work and the future.
Frank Casey is director of NDSU’s school of natural resources and a leader with its agricultural experiment station. He spoke excitedly about all the different skills and projects NDSU professors are bringing to the site — and he points out that one of the big strengths of Grand Farm is that it’s a magnet for so many minds interested in the future of farming. That can lead to exciting projects.
“Basically like a speed-dating platform, right?” he said. “You're bringing people together and making good things happen."
The ultimate promise of places like Grand Farm is a radically reshaped farm of the future. There are, of course, plenty of ways to imagine that — but one of them is through automation, which could stand to drastically lower labor costs and barriers to entry.
The USDA’s Economic Research Service said that, between 1990 and 2019, nonsupervisory crop and livestock workers’ wages grew 1.1% per year on average — after adjusting for inflation. But near the end of that period, it grew at an annual rate of 2.8%. In short, farm labor is getting more expensive.
And estimates on the cost of entering the farming industry are typically enormous. One estimate, in Successful Farming magazine, put it north of $5 million to launch a grain farm in the central Midwest.
Alderholdt points out that a highly automated farm wouldn’t need to run an expensive combine eight hours a day with paid labor, though. It could just as easily run an automated combine — a fixed, one-time cost — for 14 hours a day. The economies of scale change drastically when those kinds of technologies are introduced, and that’s the promise of just one kind of new tech Grand Farm could help explore.
That kind of transformative change is far in the future, but slowly arriving already. In 2015, Sioux Falls’ Argus Leader was already reporting at length on the way robotic milking was freeing up a farmer’s time near Tea, S.D. A South Dakota Hutterite colony has adopted the practice, the Tri-State Neighbor reported in 2017.
Of course, it’s a long road to that kind of change. Mark Watne, president of the North Dakota Farmers Union, points out that there’s a big difference between bells-and-whistles technology and the kind that can truly shift economies of scale. And farmers right now, he said, are far more focused on the market that’s been dramatically reshaped by the coronavirus, dropping prices and causing a huge oversupply. Producers can’t grow their way out of it without making the supply problem worse, he pointed out.
"The real issue at hand is that the farms that are short on production, the small pockets of hail or dryness … they're the folks that really suffer,” Watne said. “They're having a secondary disaster within a disaster.”
But he pointed out that there’s plenty of room for new farm tech to help make things a little easier — and a little less expensive.
“Farmers like technology,” he said. “And they tend to try to be as current as they can.”