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CAREER SPOTLIGHT: AGRICULTURAL ENGINEER
Career spotlight: Agricultural engineer
June 8, 2017
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
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
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:
http://engineeringonline.ucr.edu/resources/article/5-careers-for-ms-environmental-engineering-grads/
http://engineeringonline.ucr.edu/resources/article/what-is-sustainable-product-design/
Sources:
http://money.cnn.com/2016/09/13/news/economy/median-income-census/
http://www.worldofcorn.com/#us-corn-at-a-glance
http://www.westernfarmpress.com/blog/what-are-greatest-agriculture-breakthroughs-history
https://www.in.gov/dnr/reclamation/files/re-FarmMgtPractices.pdf
https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/govbeat/wp/2015/04/03/agriculture-is-80-percent-of-water-use-in-
california-why-arent-farmers-being-forced-to-cut-back/?utm_term=.c7b0ee9d989b
https://www.nspe.org/resources/licensure/how-get-licensed
http://thefarmerslife.com/farmers-harvest-corn/
https://apps.fas.usda.gov/psdonline/circulars/production.pdf
https://www.bls.gov/ooh/architecture-and-engineering/agricultural-engineers.htm#tab-1
http://data.worldbank.org/indicator/AG.AGR.TRAC.NO?end=2000&start=1961&view=chart
https://www.ers.usda.gov/data-products/feed-grains-database/feed-grains-yearbook-tables/
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