Career Spotlight: Agricultural Engineering

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Heavy-duty industrial irrigation equipment spraying grassy farmland

From the milk in your cereal to the vegetables in your salad or the butter on your fresh-baked bread, the food that feeds the world is made possible by some special people: farmers. As the saying goes, “If you ate today, thank a farmer,” the labors of whom are often intense and tiresome.

But who do farmers express their appreciation for? In other words, what profession enables farmers to produce as much dairy, corn or wheat as they do each year? Perhaps more so than any single industry, agricultural engineering.

Whether it’s rototillers, row crop tractors or automated harvesting systems, agricultural machinery enable farmers to tend to their fields more efficiently so they can plant, till, pick and weed far faster than they could on their own. Since fresh produce and pantry staples are an ongoing need, agricultural and biological engineers must constantly refine their problem-solving capabilities and apply engineering principles to their craft so growers can literally reap more of what they sow.

Agricultural engineering is an extremely rewarding profession — in more ways than one — and you can enter it successfully by continuing your education through the University of California Riverside. The online Master of Science in Engineering with a specialization in Environmental Engineering Systems may be a long title for a program, but in as little as 13 months, you can earn the graduate degree quicker than you got your bachelor’s degree. You can then immediately leverage it to your occupational advantage in this line of work or those similar to it. Farmers rely on agricultural and biological engineers to make their painstaking efforts less taxing, and the skills you’ll discover through this program will give you the practical experience needed to help growers and farmhands turn on-the-job challenges into solutions.

You may wonder: What skills do agricultural engineers need to be successful in their field? Where do agricultural engineers work on a day-to-day basis? What do their responsibilities involve? What is the main focus of an agricultural degree? How much can you expect to earn? Read on to discover the answer to these questions and more.

What are some of the duties of agricultural engineers?

From uncooperative weather patterns to poor soil chemistry, farmers encounter a variety of problems in any given season, issues that can ultimately impact their overall productivity. Agricultural engineers attempt to solve those problems by applying mathematical and scientific principles to modern-day technology. In doing so, agricultural engineers can improve the efficiency of fertilizer and make traditional machinery found in farming — such as combines, gins and plows — untraditional in their capacities and capabilities. In essence, they make growers’ challenges less challenging.

According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, some of their tasks include:

  • Using computer software modeling and applications to design equipment, systems or structures.
  • Testing equipment to identify they’re reliability and potential for injury.
  • Researching environmental phenomena to see how drought or lack of sunshine can be neutralized through technology, such as artificial intelligence or geospatial systems.
  • Overseeing ongoing production or modernization operations.

While they may work independently from time to time, agricultural engineers usually work collaboratively, whether with colleagues, professionals in biological engineering or with clients to ensure they deliver on expectations. For example, a major natural source of fertilizer that farmers leverage is manure, be it from cows, chickens, donkeys or other farm animals. Agricultural engineers may work collaboratively with biological engineers to identify what aspects of animal waste can be used for improved plant growth and germination, thus minimizing animal waste disposal.

What are some types of agricultural engineering jobs?

Agricultural engineering is a massive industry; as such, agricultural engineers may specialize in a particular vocation or discipline. For example, as the Bureau of Labor Statistics points out, some spent the brunt of their time in laboratory settings researching the quality and reliability of processing equipment. Others may spend their days in actual fields running tests on farm machinery to see if new upgrades work as intended or if additional modifications are required.

Other professionals in this industry focus on the environmental patterns and norms that farmers rely on to irrigate their crops. For example, they may seek to optimize driplines used to water vegetables, fruits and bushes that require a lot of moisture. This may be achieved by formulating plans, strategies or approaches that help reduce runoff, thereby conserving water.

Whatever their specific job happens to be in the agricultural space, engineers are tasked with recognizing what systems work, which ones don’t and how technology is best implemented so farmlands and farmhands get more out of their investments in time, money and energy. In many ways, agricultural engineers are succeeding, given the U.S. is among the world’s largest producers of staple crops like wheat, rice, soybeans and corn, among others. According to the most recent figures available from the Department of Agriculture, soybean production rose 21% nationwide in 2019 compared to 2018, totaling approximately 4.3 billion bushels. Corn yield also climbed, topping 9% on a year-over-year basis to nearly 15 billion bushels.

Advanced power equipment like state-of-the-art tractors — several of which feature driverless technology — and combine harvesters  that agricultural engineers are constantly working on are a big reason why America’s farmers are able to produce as much as they do.

Who do agricultural engineers work for?

In the broad sense, agricultural engineers help to better society by making farmers jobs easier and helping everyday Americans put food on the table. More specifically, though, they predominantly work for government agencies. According to BLS data, 20% of them are employed by the federal government. An additional 12% are employed by colleges and universities, including professional and state schools of higher education. Another 15% work on behalf of private engineering services companies (6%) or in technical consulting roles(9%).

You may wind up working for representative professional organizations and/or affiliations, such as the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE). This international society is mainly charged with oversight and also provides updates on standards of practice and contributes studies, opinions and statements to scientific and academic journals alike.

What is demand like for agricultural engineers?

Among all occupations on a year-to-year basis, the average growth rate in employment is around 4%, according to the BLS. Relative to this figure, the level of demand for agricultural engineers is slower than what is typical, averaging around 2%. In 2019, there were around 1,700 gainfully employed agricultural engineers, most of whom worked a typical 40-hour week.

That said, so long as there are people and animals — all of whom require food and water to survive — there will always be an ongoing need for professionals in agricultural engineering or derivations of it (e.g., biological engineering, industrial engineering, etc.). Plus, since there is always room for improvement in organic fertilizers, sub-soling plows and harrows, the job outlook for aspiring agricultural engineers will always be bright.

The state you reside in may also have an influence on demand. For example, since California is not only the largest state in terms of population but also consistently produces the most food — based on estimates from the USDA — job availability in the Golden State may be greater than it is in Hawaii or Maryland. However, just about every state has a need for these professionals. As of 2019, the states with the highest employment level of agricultural engineers included California, Iowa, Texas, Kentucky and Ohio. In terms of earnings, those in Texas had the highest annual mean wage at $88,970.

What is the typical salary of an agricultural engineer?

Several factors play into what professionals in this line of work tend to make in a given year, including their level of practical experience, where they live, their education level and what company they’re employed by. The median annual wage in 2019 was $80,720, according to BLS figures. There is significant potential to earn more than this amount, as the top 10% during this same year made over $160,950, which is considerably higher than what the typical engineer makes regardless of specialization ($94,500).

An advanced degree in agricultural engineering can provide you with the credentials you need to corroborate your capabilities in this line of work. Employers highly value experience and knowledge. The learning outcomes available through UC Riverside can provide the skills that organizations pay generously for when positions become available.

What skills are helpful to have?

Multitasking is part of this profession, so the more capabilities you have, the better off you’ll be in terms of performance.

Since much of the work involves recognizing issues or optimizing machinery, problem solving is key. Whether it’s designing safer equipment or refining the output of harrows, the methodologies and practical principles of engineering are what help professionals with this specialization identify and achieve resolutions to production pain points.

Additionally, since so much of what agricultural engineers do requires collaboration, communication skills are a key attribute as well. These are also important when working independently, as agricultural engineers must be able to clearly understand highly technical problems so they can go about finding a potential workaround.

Analytical skills, mathematical proficiency and critical thinking are some of the other skills that agricultural engineers need to succeed.

The online Master of Science in Engineering is geared to help you hone your strengths and add to your capability toolbelt. From courses like Engineering in the Global Environment to Technology Innovation and Strategy for Engineers, UC Riverside can give you the strengths to thrive in this exciting line of work. Learn more by exploring our online master’s in engineering website or by visiting our environmental engineering page.

 

Recommended Reading

5 Careers for Environmental Engineering Grads

7 Types of Engineering Companies to Work For

 

Sources

USDA – Corn and Soybean Production 2019

Bureau of Labor Statistics – Agricultural Engineers

BLS – Occupational Employment Statistics