Career spotlight: Agricultural engineer

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Corn field after harvest

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:

Harvester combines

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:

  • Land reclamation projects: The state of Indiana, among others, has raised awareness of what farmers and landowners, working alongside engineers, can do to restore the viability of damaged soils in areas such as reclaimed coal mines.
  • Runoff pattern optimization: Farms account for the bulk of all water consumption, representing 80 percent of usage in California, the top agricultural state. Agricultural engineers may formulate plans to reduce runoff, in order to conserve water and minimize the spread of chemicals.
  • Software modeling of farm machinery: As they design and create agricultural equipment like harvester combines, engineers may rely on CAD programs and other software to accelerate the process, by allowing them to quickly test relevant scenarios.
  • Refrigeration systems: Refrigeration was a breakthrough in agriculture since it allowed for long-term storage of foodstuffs. Agricultural engineers continue to improve refrigeration systems in terms of their electrical efficiencies and storage capacities.
  • Fertilizer and chemical management: Engineers may look for ways to more precisely target the application of fertilizers and to efficiently dispose of animal waste.

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:

  • The U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics estimated the median salary for an agricultural engineer at $73,640 for 2016. This number is well above the median household income for 2015 ($56,516) measured by the U.S. Census Bureau.
  • There were 2,900 positions in agricultural engineering in the U.S. in 2014. BLS expects a 4 percent growth in this number by 2024, equating to about 100 new jobs.
  • Main drivers of this ongoing expansion include the demand for more efficient agricultural production and reduced environmental damage from agriculture.

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.

Recommended Readings:

5 Careers for Environmental Engineering Grads

What Is Sustainable Product Design?