Agricultural engineers are the unsung heroes of a vital industry. While farmers themselves receive much of the credit for sustaining the world’s food supply, they rely extensively on the expertise of agricultural engineerswho design and implement essential farm machines, infrastructures, and other resources such as biofuels.
A look at some of the biggest breakthroughs in agricultural engineering
Such technologies have been instrumental in the long-term rise in agricultural yields, especially of crops like corn and soybeans, which are harvested with heavy machinery:
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), nationwide corn production rose from 730 million bushels in 1866 (at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution) to 15.1 billion bushels, an all-time high, in 2016. Brazil and Mexico also saw record corn production last year, per another USDA report. Harvester combines can be fitted with a variety of heads that efficiently separate corn ears from stalks, allowing for efficient harvesting across millions of planted acres.
Tractors, gins, and plows
As yields have risen, so too have the number of machines in use on farms. The World Bank estimated that there were 10 million tractors in service in 1961, but roughly 25 million in 2000. These general purpose tractors have changed farming in similar ways to past innovations such as the cotton gin and the turn plow. Agricultural engineers are the scientific brains behind the mechanical brawn of modern crop and livestock production.
Fertilizers and the Green Revolution
Agricultural engineering is not strictly about machines. Other key innovations in its history include the discovery of the Haber-Bosch process for producing fertilizers, as well as the Green Revolution of the twentieth century, through which a combination of irrigation, mechanization, fertilization, and high-yielding varieties of cereals saved countless people in the developing world from starvation.
Real-world roles and responsibilities for agricultural engineers
For today’s agricultural engineers, there is still plenty of work to do in improving the everyday machines and methodologies of farming. For example, many of them now focus on environmental efficiencies in agriculture, with an eye toward the growing risks posed by water shortages, topsoil erosion, and greenhouse gas emissions. Initiatives an agricultural engineer might now tackle include:
With these sorts of tasks in front of them, what kind of training do agricultural engineers need to succeed? Let’s look more at the projects they are commonly responsible for, along with what fields of study they usually draw upon to complete them.
Becoming an agricultural engineer: Key skills and credentials
Agricultural engineering is a multidisciplinary field. To be effective within it, individuals should have at least some background in subjects such as plant biology (for analyzing seeds and growth patterns), animal science (for understanding livestock), and mechanical engineering (for working with machines), among others.
Such broad knowledge helps agricultural engineers work on the conservation of energy, water, and soil, and the refinement of farm safety and ergonomics, in addition to better-known activities related to machine design. Since they have multifaceted expertise, these engineers command relatively high salaries and good career prospects:
Like engineers in other sectors, agricultural engineers usually hold at least a bachelor’s degree. Agricultural or biological engineering is the most common concentration in the profession. A graduate degree – i.e., a master’s or Ph.D. - is more prevalent among agricultural engineers who focus on research and development or work as educators.
Overlap with other engineering fields and licenses
Mechanical and environmental engineering are particularly important building blocks in agricultural engineering. For example, mechanical engineering programs often include courses in product design, which are useful in the creation of durable, environmentally-friendly farm machines. Also, environmental engineering may cover topics such as wastewater management that have become integral to sustainable farming.
Becoming a licensed professional engineer (PE) can empower agricultural engineers to be more independent and recognized in their occupations. Engineers in any sector can obtain PE licensure in the states in which they work. A combination of work experience, exam passage, and a degree from an Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology-accredited degree program pave the way to the PE distinction for agricultural engineers.
An online master’s degree program in mechanical or environmental engineering, such as the ones offered at University of California, Riverside, can fully develop all the skills needed to succeed as a chemist specializing in nanotechnology. Learn more about your program options today by visiting our main degree programs page.