Agricultural Engineer

Agricultural engineering is a combination of engineering technology and biological science applied to the field of agriculture. These engineers apply their knowledge and skills to improve sustainable agriculture production. Agricultural engineers are involved in many diverse projects, including the design of machinery and structures, such as housing for large hog operations, and the development of methods to conserve soil and water and improve the processing of agricultural products.

At a Glance

Imagine you are standing in a hilly field of potatoes watching as a crane slowly lowers a 10-metre section of aluminum pipe into a freshly dug trench. Behind the crane, a crew is busy welding the pipe sections together. You are watching all this activity because this is your design. You're an agricultural engineer who specializes in designing irrigation systems, which is why the local irrigation district has hired you. Several summers of drought conditions have decreased the productivity of dry-land fields, and the irrigation district needed to find a way to extend its system and carry water to the parched areas. You have been brought in to design a system of piping and reservoirs that will give farmers the water they need to grow their crops.

As an agricultural engineer, you combine your knowledge of pipeline design and construction with information on the area's geography, climate, and crop rotations in order to design a new system for piping irrigation water from the district's canals to dry-land fields. You gather information on the local water table and historical weather data, particularly the longest periods between rainfall, as well as the water demands of different crops, so you know how large to make the reservoirs and connecting pipes. Then you look at localized elevation and slope changes to determine the optimal placement for the reservoirs. These reservoirs need to be down grade from the canal, so the forces of gravity will keep the water moving.

Finally, you use your irrigation schedule and water-flow rates to determine the type and size of pipe needed. When completed, water will flow from the canals through a system of pipes you have designed and into reservoirs from which farmers can pump the water onto their fields.

Job Duties

Duties vary significantly from job to job, but the following list includes typical job duties one might encounter as an agricultural engineer:

  • Plan, design, and supervise the building of irrigation, drainage, and flood-and-water control systems.
  • Plan, design, and supervise the construction of agricultural buildings and storage facilities, such as livestock structures, greenhouses, silos, and cold-storage facilities for apples.
  • Design and evaluate equipment used for ground preparation, seeding, spraying, harvesting, and transporting agricultural goods.
  • Ensure design is consistent with local codes and all required permits obtained.
  • Supervise the cleaning, milling, grading, mixing, processing, cooling, packaging, and distribution of agricultural products.
  • Prepare and present technical reports, meet with clients, and communicate technical concepts to colleagues and clients with non-technical backgrounds.
  • Conduct research to find new sustainable ways to produce food and fiber for consumers.
  • Conduct research for the design of innovative new structures and systems.
  • Conduct research to develop new technologies and management practices for food production that protect environmental resources.

Work Environment

Agricultural engineers work in a variety of locations, including:

In the office:

  • Doing paperwork, analyzing data, and preparing reports
  • Drafting construction plans and designing computerized management plans
  • Planning projects, administering and managing budgets
  • Communicating on the phone and in meetings with clients, stakeholders, and government departments and presenting to clients designs, ideas, and recommendations
  • Researching and collecting background information and consulting with other engineers and professionals

In the field:

  • Touring and inspecting sites and establishing demonstration sites
  • Troubleshooting and advising clients on the correct operation of systems
  • Testing designs and recommended changes
  • Taking measurements and recording data and observations
  • Installing and testing monitoring equipment

Where to Work

There are a number of places agricultural engineers can find employment. They include:

  • Engineering consulting firms
  • Agricultural equipment suppliers and manufacturers
  • Food processors
  • Federal, provincial/territorial, and municipal government departments
  • Colleges, universities, and research institutes
  • Not-for-profit and non-governmental organizations

Education and Skills

If you are a high school student considering a career as an agricultural engineer, you should have strong marks or an interest in:

  • Mathematics
  • Physics
  • Chemistry
  • Calculus
  • Biology

In most cases, the minimum education requirement to work as an agricultural engineer is a university undergraduate degree. If you are a post-secondary student considering a career as an agricultural engineer, the following programs are most applicable:

  • Mechanical Engineering
  • Bioresource Engineering
  • Chemical Engineering

You will need to work for two or three years as an Engineer-in-Training (EIT) and then write a professional practice exam. A post-graduate degree, master's degree, or PhD may be required and can improve your employment prospects and salary. To practice as a Professional Engineer, you must be licensed with a provincial or territorial engineering association.

Education and Skills

Esther Bérubé

"I wanted to go into engineering because of the variety of projects and the observable immediate impact of one’s work,” says Esther Bérubé. Esther became accustomed to variety early on. Her father was a civil engineer and the family spent years living abroad in Ghana, Venezuela, Niger, and Costa Rica. The living conditions she witnessed in these developing nations greatly influenced her career choice. "I saw a lot of people living in rapidly degrading areas.

Seeing this made me want to find a career where I could make their living conditions more stable and healthy.” Today, Esther has a bachelor’s degree in agricultural engineering and a master’s in chemical engineering and works as a junior engineer with Golder Associates in Montreal. She spends much of her time at her desk working on a project-to-project basis. However, two or three days of every month, Esther does get out in the field. Her duties there include supervising the digging of boreholes and taking water or soil samples to monitor environmental quality. "I really do enjoy being out in the field and getting my gloved hands—and safety equipment—dirty.”

In the office, Esther’s duties are varied and they include going over project designs, making calculations, and interacting directly with the client. "They (Golder Associates) are really good that way. They have their hands in so many different projects that I experience a broad range of the steps involved in assessing and treating contaminated sites.” The variety of projects also exposes Esther to a number of different professional styles. "Each project manager and engineer has a different approach,” notes Esther.

As a junior engineer in the company, she learns a great deal from this diversity. There are some drawbacks to Esther’s job. One of the largest is the quantity of information she must absorb and understand in a limited amount of time. While that is intimidating, she continues to surprise herself. "Sometimes I get off the phone with a contractor and say to myself, "Wow, I really knew what I was talking about. And to think only months ago I didn’t know any of this!”

Esther has also realized solving project dilemmas and problems are not nearly as easy in the real world. "When I was studying engineering, every question had a solution, and it was up to the student to reach it. You always knew that the information necessary to solve the problem was provided or readily available.” It wasn’t until she started her job at Golder that she realized, in the real world, every problem still has a solution, but due to constraints of time, money, and the environment, that solution isn’t always so easily reached.

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