Since Microsoft purchased Great Plains Software in 2001, the tech giant has had a major presence in North Dakota. Now one of the largest employers in Fargo is working with farmers on how its technologies can be a platform for agriculture. We caught up with Taya Spelhaug, Microsoft’s Tech Spark North Dakota Manager, about the work they’re doing with ag tech.
Q: What is Microsoft’s vision for agriculture?
A: Microsoft’s mission is to empower every person and organization on the planet to achieve more, so our work is really about building the tools that can make others more successful in what they are trying to achieve. That is our vision for digital transformation taking part across our economy, where our customers’ success is how we measure our success. That includes the transformation taking place in agriculture and how modern farms are harnessing technology to increase crop yields and improve how land is sustainably used. FarmBeats is an example of the potential for precision agriculture where we are providing farmers with access to Microsoft cloud and AI technologies, enabling data-driven decisions to help improve agricultural yield, lower overall costs and reduce the environmental impact of production.
When Microsoft and FFA announced our Blue 365 partnership bringing technology, science, research and entrepreneurship programming to more than 650,000 FFA student members nationwide, Fargo was a natural choice because of the agriculture innovation happening here in North Dakota.
Q: With TechSpark being a year and a half in, what are you learning from being in North Dakota and how will Microsoft help address those concerns you’ve discovered?
A: Fargo is one of just six communities selected for TechSpark, Microsoft’s civic program designed to foster greater economic opportunity and job creation in rural and smaller metropolitan communities through regional internet connectivity, computer science education and digital skills development, career skills development, nonpro t support and digital business transformation.
Not only am I a lifelong North Dakotan, but Microsoft also has a campus in Fargo, and so that gave us a good starting point to partner closely at the local level. If there was one takeaway from our first year and a half, it’s just how important community partnerships are to creating economic opportunity. If it wasn’t for the commitment and work of our local civic leaders, nonpro ts, local businesses
and schools coming together to create new opportunities, and an understanding of the complex challenges that our community faces, we would not be making the progress we’ve seen.
In North Dakota, we have expanded our TEALS computer science program in high schools and organized the rst state- wide Hour of Code for hundreds of schools and thousands of students. We are assessing skills shortages and leveraging partnerships with Code.org, 4-H, FFA and local colleges to drive digital skills opportunities and career pathway training programs. And we are seeing results from this model of deep partnership.
It’s encouraging to see the recent adoption of computer science and cybersecurity standards that will help schools equip students for the 21st-century workforce, the public and private high- speed internet initiatives that are giving North Dakota citizens and businesses increased access to the digital economy—they are investments in our future prosperity.
Q: Why is agriculture so ripe for innovation?
A: Every industry across our economy is leveraging technology to be more innovative, efficient and competitive and agriculture is no exception. You see it here in our state with the agricultural transformation taking place in North Dakota as farms, co-ops and others embrace technology and pioneer how innovation can be put to practical use. The move toward a data-driven approach to farming will help us answer one of the most di cult and important questions we face today: how, in a world with a nite amount of arable land, can we produce enough food to meet the needs of a global population that continues to grow? Farms and the larger ag industry, in particular, see technology as a valuable tool to do that.
Q: Agriculture is undergoing a massive cultural shift
as the new generation is taking over farming from the previous ones. What possibilities does this open up for innovation?
A: The next generation of ag leaders has grown up with technology as part of their lives so they also see the promise it can o er, including on the farm. Microsoft has been working with youth programs like National 4-H and FFA to help students get access to cutting edge technology education and skills opportunities, including here in North Dakota. In its first year, the program was active in Cass County here in North Dakota, as well as five other counties in rural states.
We are also partnering with 4-H’s Tech Changemakers program to empower students with technology to improve their communities. We’re also supporting FFA’s Blue 365 Challenge so students can learn about precision agriculture and Internet of Things (IoT) technologies. Not only does that bring a real learning opportunity through curricula to 650,000 of FFA’s student members nationwide, it also sparks deeper interest for students to get hands-on with their own ag innovation. In my hometown of Kindred, the FFA chapter students competed to win one of 50 FarmBeats student kits in a national competition and won, and that really hammers home the potential for innovation happening here in our own backyard.
Q: The average person is mindful and even scared of automation because of the lost jobs. What would you say to them to soothe their fears and why should we actually be excited about it?
A: Technology and the pace of innovation is rapid and with it comes disruptions and the very real implications that come with it. As a technology company, we realize we have a responsibility to help people access opportunities that technology can bring, including through our TechSpark work to expand digital skills and foster those economic opportunities here in North Dakota. To help people get the training they need to thrive in today’s economy and prepare for the future, Microsoft is focusing on: Preparing today’s students for tomorrow’s jobs
Helping today’s workers prepare for the changing economy by identifying skills employers are seeking and providing training opportunities for workers to upskill and advancing life-long skills development.
Q: Something I think a lot about is the growing population. I think of somebody like Norman Borlaug who is credited with saving a billion lives because of the agricultural innovations he adopted in the 1960s. In 2050, there’s going to be almost 10 billion people. Obviously, to feed that population, we need innovation and growth. Do you ever think of the technology that Microsoft and other companies is working on as being similar to what Borlaug did?
A: With the world’s population expected to grow nearly 2.5 billion people over the next quarter century, advancements like artificial intelligence o er significant opportunities to increase food production by improving agricultural yield and reducing waste. We are just in the beginning stages of that emerging technology, but already we can see that success will depend on scaling precision farming technologies. That makes our work to expand broadband access in rural and remote areas where people do not have a high-speed internet connection and digital skills education and upskilling talent so fundamental to realizing that potential.
Q: Twenty years from now, where do you see North Dakota being at in terms of an industry leader in terms of automation in agriculture? What innovations are you most excited to see come to fruition?
A: There is an old proverb that it is better to light a candle than curse the darkness. North Dakota is embracing a future where its industries are diversified and it is leading innovation, and that has tremendous potential to bene t its residents and economy. Already our state is being called the “Silicon Valley” of U.S. drone industry technology, it can lead on agricultural transformation, and it is preparing its future workers through computer science and cybersecurity skills by adopting ambitious education standards. I’m excited by this progress because it can lay the foundation for a future of opportunity.