Podcast Episode 46

How the Next Generation is Using Technology to Take Agriculture to the Next Level

With Guest:
  • Brenden VanWechel of Ellingson Companies, Business Development and Ag Tech Intern

The agricultural industry is a growing field, but the amount of farmable acreage is decreasing as the world’s population grows. Brenden VanWechel, Business Development and Ag Tech Intern for Ellingson Companies, joins Jamie to discuss the critical role of technology and the next generation in finding solutions to increase yields and create more sustainable agriculture.

Episode 46 | 21 min

Guest Bio

Brenden VanWechel enjoys using technology to find solutions for sustainable agriculture, bridging the gap between the current generations and the next generation of farmers and ag leaders. 

Brenden is a third-year North Dakota State University student studying Agriculture Communications. He grew up on a family farm in Minnesota and is excited for a career in the agriculture industry where technology can be used to increase the yields of the land we have and feed our growing world. He currently works as a Business Development and Ag Tech intern at Ellingson Companies of West Concord, MN.

Speaker 1 (00:02):

This is The Water Table.

Speaker 2 (00:05):

A chance to hear the agricultural side of these issues.

Speaker 1 (00:09):

A place for people to go find information and education.

Speaker 3 (00:13):

Water management is just going to become even more critical into the future.

Speaker 4 (00:19):

How misunderstood what we do is.

Speaker 2 (00:22):

I would encourage people to open their minds and listen to this dialogue.

Jamie Duininck (00:32):
Welcome back to The Water Table podcast. Today, I have Brenden with me. Really going to be kind of a fun conversation for me. I met Brenden a few weeks ago. He is an intern with Ellingson Companies and met him at a trade show. And it’s kind of how I heard he was working for them. And then talked to him a little bit and Brenden’s a young man. Just getting going in the agricultural industry, and I thought it would just be fun to just chat about why young people are interested in agriculture and what kind of his path has been. So welcome to the podcast, Brenden.

Brenden VanWechel (01:11):
Yeah. Thanks for having me.

Jamie Duininck (01:12):
So, tell us a little bit about who you are, where you’re from, that kind of thing.

Brenden VanWechel (01:17):
I’m from Argusville, North Dakota. My family farms out of Mayville, North Dakota. So, I went to high school at Northern Cass out in Hunter, and I’m currently going to NDSU for agribusiness and agricultural communications.

Jamie Duininck (01:31):
Do you plan on going back into the family farm eventually or… Why agribusiness at NDSU?

Brenden VanWechel (01:38):
I really grew up around agriculture with my family farming in Mayville. And then my dad is an agronomist and my mom used to work at AgCountry. So, just kind of growing up around that. That’s why I decided to go into agriculture. I’m not so sure I’ll go to the family farm. I think in America, the family farm’s kind of starting to die out sadly. In an operation as small as ours, 1200 acres is not the most sustainable thing. So, I’d like to, obviously, but I think going into agribusiness is a good way to stay in agriculture field without necessarily farming. So, agribusiness, that’s the reason I chose this path and it’s a really big one in North Dakota and the Red River Valley.

Jamie Duininck (02:20):
Yeah, for sure. For sure. You have siblings too and that are… You have any farming with your parents or no?

Brenden VanWechel (02:27):
So, not my brother. My brother’s not as into agriculture as me and my dad, but my cousins and then my uncle, they’re really big into it. I think my cousin’s probably going to go to Wahpeton for agronomy. So, if we ever do decide to take over the farm, he’s probably the guy that I’ll be working with the most.

Jamie Duininck (02:44):
You were hired as an intern with Ellingson into their technical area as a ag tech advisor. And we’re going to talk about that a little later about kind of what you do, but just talk a little bit about you being in college now, fairly new out of high school and interested in agriculture, but also just your generation being much more comfortable with technology. And I think so much of the world and in The Water Table podcast is partially about connecting those not in agriculture with what we do in agriculture, especially around drainage and subsurface water management, but I don’t think a lot of those people really understand how much technology is used in agriculture. It has been for… It’s been developing over the last 30, 40 years, so it’s not new, but yet your generation is the generation that can really embrace autonomous tractors and all that stuff. So, just talk a little bit about your journey and why that part is so exciting to you.

Brenden VanWechel (03:56):
I think agriculture is kind of… It’s really a growing field for kids in my age. The first thing that they really hammered home to me when I went into college was the importance of it, right. So, obviously, we know the world’s growing. The statistics say nine billion people by 2050, right, but people don’t realize that it’s only 2% of the world is farmable acreage and it’s used for crop production. And it’s really up to my generation to make the most out of that land that we have left, I think. Companies like Ellingson are really going to come in there because when you have that little amount of land, new technologies is the way that we’re going to get the most production out of it. And I think, like I said earlier, I might not necessarily be going into farming, but if I can help the world create sustainable agriculture and increase yields through that land that we have, that’s something that my generation, we’re going to have to fit that bill.

And I think through this job at Ellingson and with technology, I’m starting to bridge a gap between the older farmers and then the newer generation. And I think that we can help the older farmers understand why technology is so important, even if it’s through just an app like Ellingson is starting to build. So, I think that’s going to be really important. And I think my generation’s really going to take technology and agriculture to the next level.

Jamie Duininck (05:11):
There’s so much pressure around the environment, around we got to grow food, we got to feed the world. We do have to have a good environment. We have urban sprawl. A lot of that in the bread basket of America. We’re building homes and cities on top of great farmland. And so, the pressure is there that when you talk about such a little amount of land is actually arable in the world and we’re not gaining more of that. And so, how do we grow more because we’re losing land and we’re growing population? And some people are very, very focused and rightfully so. That’s kind of their mission on the environment side and others are really focused on the agricultural side, but these things are going to have to come together because we have to have a clean, great environment. We also have to have the ability to feed the world, and that’s what you’re talking about right there. And again, at The Water Table, we want to bring these topics together and just share. And so, it’s neat to have a young man and young leaders like yourself that are willing to step into a career in agriculture and want to be involved in not only agriculture, but want to… Really what you want to do is be involved in solutions.

Brenden VanWechel (06:35):
I’d say that categorizes my generation pretty well. And we’re going to have to find these solutions at some point because like you said, it’s not like we’re getting more farmland.

Jamie Duininck (06:44):
And each solution, I’m sure there’s some really big ones out there, but each one is just this little piece that makes things better. And so, talk a little bit about that around the Ellingson, you mentioned it a little bit, but they have an app now that drives some technology that you’re involved with promoting as kind of your job as an intern and talk a little bit or tell us what that is and what you’re doing to promote that.

Brenden VanWechel (07:09):
So, when I came in, they told me about this app they were building. So I kind of started from the ground level and basically the whole pitch to me was that today growers, agronomists, they don’t really have that easy access to real time data insights about subsurface conditions in the farm field, which is starting to get more and more important as the climate up in the Red River Valley and the Mississippi river delta starts to get wetter and wetter. Lots of these farmers really just don’t understand how the factors are going to impact our overall production. And we believe having these insights are really going to help make precision decisions easier and better for daily farm operations. And there’s a lot of things that we want to help with. Lowering costs, increasing production per bushel, and hopefully in the end that’s going to result in more profit and a better return on investment for the grower.

So, that’s really where Ellingson is trying to push the boundaries is that we noticed in the ag industry, there’s a lot of apps. It’s a very oversaturated market as far as technology goes, but the one thing that we thought that was missing and something that obviously we think is very critical is going to be control drainage and agricultural drainage and using the water that we have available to help increase yields in crop production.

Jamie Duininck (08:28):
That’ll be exciting. And I know you guys have been working hard at rolling that out already, but from the standpoint of mainstream and really seeing it and understanding, it’s going to be exciting for the agricultural industry to continue to hear more about that, what you’re up to, and how it can help individuals and help agriculture as a whole. So, exciting stuff. And you’re doing that. Personally, you’re kind of around in the Red River Valley mostly at these winter trade shows and just helping as people say, “Hey, what is it?” Farmers come up to a booth, “Explain this to me. Tell me about it.” That’s your job, right?

Brenden VanWechel (09:06):
I’d say that I’m kind of like the middle man. So, when I talk to these farmers and our sales people at these trade shows, they tell me what they think would help them on a day to day basis. And then I’ll bring that over to our tech side. We’ll talk about it, see if this is something you want to input. So, we’re taking in people right now to use the app and bring us back feedback on things that they think that they’d like to see because the biggest problem we have is trying to bridge that gap between farmers actually using it and a product that people are going to want to use. So, they’ve brought in a lot of good things to us like the return on investment piece, financial risk assessments, field insights, field notes, field monitoring, field data, and analysis, so we can import their tile maps or drainage maps, plat maps, anything you need. So, we’re just trying to bring those customers in. I’ll talk to them, see what they want, see what they want added. They tell me things they might not like, things that they wouldn’t use. I’ll bring that back and we can change it for them.

Jamie Duininck (10:06):
And the neat thing about this too and when you sit in my seat here at The Water Table is just trying to promote the industry. And in reality, you’re promoting a proprietary product to the Ellingson Companies, but at the same time, it’s growing knowledge and growing those farmers just basic knowledge of drainage and what can be done and what needs to be done as part of, again, why we started this is it’s just surprising as we’ve been in the business for a long time, my whole career, but that there still is such little knowledge about what we do and how it works. And at times subsurface drainage gets a bad rap. It gets a bad rap in the Red River Valley because they say it adds to the flooding and we can prove it doesn’t, but… So that’s why we’re here. And so, it’s fun to have you and people like you out at these shows that are just talking every day to help people understand the realities of what we do rather than what they think.

Brenden VanWechel (11:08):
In my opinion, up in the Red River Valley, we’re so traditional. They’re not as into bringing in this new stuff. Tile in the Red River Valley is still pretty relatively new even versus Minnesota where they’ve had it for 50 or 60 years. And that’s part of the problem too is that people don’t think that we’re really trying to help them, but we are. And I think that if some of these people would look into what we’re doing, they’d see how much it can help them on a day to day basis. And that’s just kind of been the toughest thing so far, but I think once it catches on, it’s really going to spread quick.

Jamie Duininck (11:40):
Well, I got another question kind of switching gears a little bit away from technology, but just having the opportunity, you’re the first younger guy that we’ve interviewed on the podcast and just talk a little bit about… Everywhere you go in America right now, the workforce is tight. “Help wanted”, “Now hiring” signs everywhere. Agriculture is just in the same boat as everything else with that. And probably even has more pressures on it because agriculture is in rural America and tough to find help, and then really tough to find people that really want to be in agriculture want to work hard and be passionate about it.

So, you’re a young guy. Come out of high school, decided to go get a degree, which is great. Another thing I saw yesterday was that college acceptance and college students has dropped every year now since 2010. People are just going into the workforce because there’s jobs, because the trades are hiring and are great careers for people. But talk just a little bit. I know you and I have had a sidebar just briefly on this, but what are your thoughts about all that, not only for yourself, but for your generation really?

Brenden VanWechel (13:02):
I think there’s really a bad stigma surrounding going straight from high school to the workforce because it’s something even at a small school like mine in a rural setting that they kind of drilled into you. “Go to college, get a four year degree.” But through my experience and through the people I’ve met, I think that’s not always necessarily the best choice. And if I wasn’t three years into school, I probably would’ve redone it. I would’ve gone to a tech school, a trade school because I know at Ellingson anyway, you have the opportunity to come right out of high school and you’re making $50,000 a year. You can move up through the company. Lots of people start here as laborers, they’ll move up. We have laborers that started here that are sales guys now. I think there’s just a lot of room to grow.

And especially in the agricultural industry, I think experience in my personal opinion is the king. I think through experience more, that’s what people in the ag sector are going to be looking for versus going to a school because if you’re in school for agribusiness, well, what experience do you have outside of the classroom? It’s something that I think is really missing in four year schools versus if you go to a Wahpeton. Say, Wahpeton for agronomy. I know that they’re bringing you out into the field, you’re going to meet a lot of farmers. They hire you basically right out of school. And I have friends who even did that, and they have gained great experience and they’re going to go on to do great things. So, I just think we kind of need to stop that stigma of “Go to college, get a four year degree”, because that’s not always necessarily the best case depending on what you want to do with your life. Because like I said, I probably would’ve redone it if I had to choose.

Jamie Duininck (14:38):
Yeah. It’s really interesting because of the opportunities that are out there right now. Like you said, just to earn a lot. And my other job is at Prinsco and Ellingson’s our customer. And we have a lot of other customers and they’re all in… Including Prinsco. We’re all in the same boat when it comes to just finding people that want to be passionate and build a career in your company. And I could line up so many people right now that would be willing to hire guys like you that are early 20s and want to stay in the industry and just want to learn. Not saying they want to commit to working at that company forever, but they want to learn and so that they can grow their knowledge base for their future career. So, it’s pretty interesting. I wanted to ask you that question on, do you feel like your generation is… That tide is changing also. Not just with you, but with your generation.

Brenden VanWechel (15:41):
Honestly, I think it kind of depends on what you want to go into. I think there’s kind of a… It’s probably a sad truth is that my generation isn’t necessarily always the hardest working. I think one thing that separates my generation though is going to be the agriculture industry because I grew up in a rural setting where lots of kids are farmers and we know how to work hard. It just kind of depends where you’re going into, what you’re going to school for. I hope it’s something that changes. I hope that we realize that experience… And like I said, I think experience is king and working hard is going to get you a lot of places as well as good connections. And I hope that changes and I think it will. I know a lot of kids even out of my high school now are deciding to go to two year schools for agronomy, diesel technology, carpentry, stuff like that. And I think it will start to change as soon as my generation really starts to learn the importance of hard work. And hopefully that will change here in the near future.

Jamie Duininck (16:38):
What do you think… Just speak a little bit to some people that might be listening to this podcast that are business owners, smaller employee base, and they struggle like everybody else to find good people. What would as a young guy that wants to work in the agricultural arena, what would attract you if you’re looking for a job and looking on social media or driving down the road and see a sign, whatever it might be? What would attract you to a company?

Brenden VanWechel (17:14):
I think the thing that really drew me here is that this is a big company with a small company feel. I think being kind of a casual workplace, a casual work environment is something really important to kids my age. Before this, I actually worked at a bank where it’s very like one, two, three. You have to dress this way. You have to talk to people certain way. Coming into the ag industry, I realized that I get to sit down with the COO of our company whenever I want. He’s always there to talk to me. He’s always there to help out. Just making you feel important, I think is something that’s really important to my generation. They care about my ideas, even though I’m only a 20 year old kid, who’s still kind of learning the tricks of the trade.

These people here have been incredible. And I think a lot of ag businesses are probably like that. And then being able to just take in the information that I’m bringing from my schooling and stuff like that and put it to good use is something that’s really important to kids my age. We just want to feel that we’re needed. And we want people to know that we’re working hard. And I think that’s really what’s going to attract them is if you tell them your ideas are important to us, the work you do really matters. You’re not just another number in the company. That’s something that’s always been really important to me. And I think that would bring in a lot of kids my age to your company, for sure.

Jamie Duininck (18:34):
That created another question in my head, but what are kids doing today now?From the standpoint, it feels like people, your generation, are on to podcasting and things like this early on just to learn and to gain that knowledge. And now the old people like me are getting into podcasting. So, you guys got to be way beyond that. So, what are some of the ways that you guys are learning and educating yourself?

Brenden VanWechel (19:01):
Definitely podcasting. The internet is obviously huge. I mean, anything you want is at your fingertips these days. So, being able to research that, listen to podcasts, go to certain classes, learning online is just such a big deal. If you want a job in a certain field, in a certain town, you can look that up. If you’re interested in drainage, you can look that up. You can go talk to people. You can network. We have a lot of career fairs and stuff now. NDSU, for example, for certain things you’re going to school for, they make you go to the career fairs network. It’s really important. I think that that’s something that companies are doing a really good job of to get their name out there. And if that continues, I have no doubt in my mind that they’re going to find the people they’re looking for and kids like me are going to find what they’re looking for too.

Jamie Duininck (19:53):
Sure. Sure. Well, thanks so much for… I speak for our industry of being passionate about agriculture because there’s a lot of us that are of the older generation that are passionate about agriculture. And for us doesn’t seem like that long ago that we were your age and we’re just wondering where our careers are going to go and working hard and meeting people, which is part of probably many industries, but has been very rewarding for me in this industry as the relationships that you build. And I can tell you’re doing that already. And thanks for joining The Water Table, Brandon, and just sharing your story and make sure that if you have advice or ideas on which we should go, that can connect to your generation, that you would share them in the future.

Brenden VanWechel (20:47):
Oh, yeah. 100%. I appreciate you having me on, and if anybody has any questions about our app, don’t hesitate to contact me or Ellingson. I’ll get back to you.

Jamie Duininck (20:56):
Appreciate your time. Thanks so much.

Brenden VanWechel (20:57):
Yeah. Thank you. I appreciate it.

Jamie Duininck (21:02):
Thanks for joining us today on The Water Table. You can find us at watertable.ag. Find us on Facebook. You can find us on Twitter and you can also find the podcast on any of your favorite podcast platforms.