In 1996, Ben Brutlag was a 9-year-old bundle of questions, walking in his father’s shadow and soaking up the lessons of farm life on the heavy black soil of the Red River Valley. The precocious farm boy helped his father build a 36-row planter and a 90' sprayer well before the implements were commercially available in the Wendell, Minn., area. Hands of the father and heart of the boy, the necessity of innovation took a steely grip on Brutlag.
Nature or nurture, Brutlag, 29, is a prime example of agriculture’s new breed: A mix of dirt, metal, digital technology, marketing and analytics bound in one package. Simply, there are not many farmers with a diversification footprint to match Brutlag. Agriculture provides an endless chain of problems in need of solutions, and driven by necessity, profit and curiosity, Brutlag is finding answers.
As a precision ag consultant with Barrett Farm Supply, Brutlag is immersed in agronomy and still has a foot on the family farm. Since graduating with an ag economics degree from North Dakota State University in 2009, Brutlag has carved a remarkable trail of innovation, beginning with Easy-Out, a tow system for tractors and combines comprised of a cable pulley. He took Easy-Out from design theory to commercialization in 2010 and the product remains on the market. “Easy-Out was a total education for me at 22,” he says.
The simplest part of a new product is the initial construction, Brutlag says. Fine-tuning, fast-tracking and mass production come next, followed by the hardest phase: selling. “Most of us coming from farms don’t have any feel for marketplace sales experience. Easy-Out shaped me and made things a lot easier the next time,” he says.
Next up was Field Tracer, an app for soil sampling, scouting, RTK data collection and surveying, partially developed by Brutlag in 2011. This app led to Brutlag and a few friends starting Dirt Tech, a company that aims to keep GIS uncomplicated and inexpensive, and three more apps: Rock Picker, Field Scout and Ag Tile Estimator.
The apps are simple and effective, but the upkeep requires a concentrated, continuous effort from Brutlag. The demands of a digital product carry an entirely unique dynamic.
“Easy-Out is a physical item that maintains its form and is always ready for sale. However, apps require constant updating and care,” Brutlag says.
In 2016, Brutlag jumped back to equipment innovation with Yield Flexx, a lightweight sidedressing attachment to optimize nutrient placement jointly developed with Barrett Farm Supply.
Bob Ehlers, owner of Barrett Farm Supply, says Brutlag has the ability to combine technology across different facets: “Ben has exceptional intelligence with a particular passion for electronics. He understood GPS, auto-steer and variable rate before they were really on the market.”
“It’s a mix of passion and ingenuity that makes Ben unique,” adds Lance Johnson, a farmer and custom harvester, as well as co-owner of AmeriFab, the company manufacturing Yield Flexx. “The survivors in farming will be innovators and diversifiers.”
Brutlag is an agricultural renaissance man in 2017, but a wave of young producers will follow and what is now remarkable will become the norm. “Today’s 10-year-olds are immersed in digital technology,” he says. “Someday they’ll be taking over the farm.”