What Is Agricultural Engineering? Myths and Facts: Beyond a Lay Man!

Part of the challenges of agricultural engineers, which is born out of the agricultural stigma, is the procurement of possible job opportunities. I recall stories of agricultural engineers denied internship placement with construction companies, power companies, mechanical companies, food factories, with the following dismissal words, “You are an agricultural engineer, you should be working on a farm.” This portrays a high level of misconception about agricultural engineering. The farm is just one of the places an agricultural engineer can work.

Agricultural engineering is one of the most misunderstood and under-deployed engineering disciplines, both by the employer and agricultural engineers themselves. This is chiefly because of the stigma-inspired complacency of practitioners and, the broad nature of the course. Here, we shall talk about what agricultural engineering truly means, the areas of specialization in agricultural engineering and job opportunities in agricultural engineering; because without optimal deployment of agricultural engineers, investment in agriculture will yield minimal returns, if not losses.

We have discussed engineering in details here. We can then imply that agricultural engineering is the application of engineering to agricultural practice. It is a field of engineering which provides solution to the ergonomical challenges of agricultural practice through problem conversion to solvable mathematics. Ergonomics, simply put, is man-machine relationship. Machines facilitate and enhance human efforts. Practically, agricultural engineers are charged with the responsibility of designing and optimizing solution tools, machinery, systems, structures and processes used in the agricultural production, processing, storage and preservation. This introduces us to the broad nature of agricultural engineering.

Branches, Options, Programmes or Areas of Specialization in Agricultural Engineering

With the understanding that agricultural engineering is the application of engineering to agricultural practice, let’s then understand what agricultural practice means. Agriculture is a branch of science that deals with the production, processing, storage, preservation and sale of food for man’s consumption. Therefore, an agricultural engineer designs to facilitate production, processing, preservation, storage and sales operations in agricultural practice. As a result, an agricultural engineer works in any industry that is into any of the above agricultural value chain, whether wholly or partially. A likely question then, is how diverse is agricultural engineering to facilitate the agricultural value chain? At this point, one talks about options for specializations in agricultural engineering.

Before we jump into the options in agricultural engineering, it is worthy of note that not all stages of agricultural value chain demand technical input. For example, marketing and sales demand more social engineering than technical engineering, therefore, may not be covered in the options in agricultural engineering. (This, however, may appear in the future when software engineering is used to facilicate sales) The following are the options for specialization in agriculture engineering, sometimes, called programmes: soil and water engineering option, power and machinery option; biosystems engineering, bioresources engineering option, processing, structures, urban farming etc.

Understanding Options in agricultural engineering

Soil and water engineering option: Engineers in this option major in hydrology- comprehending water movement, distribution, interaction both on the earth surface and beneath; hydraulics- understanding the mechanical properties of fluids, in this case water; erosion control- the interaction of natural and man-made forces with soil quality; for efficient soil and water conservation, and engineering.

Power and machinery option: these focus on heavy duty machinery used in agriculture especially in cultivation or other on- the-farm operations like harvesting, tillage, fertilizer application, etc. They also do power and implement design.

Processing: they design machinery, systems and processes associated with the intermediate agricultural value chain like feed mills, food factories and processing plants such as cassava mill, rice mills. They also handle storage and preservation.

Biosystems: Most times, bioresources and environmental engineering find themselves in biosystems engineering. Other times, they are separated. Bioresources focuses mainly on the engineering of resource production systems from agriculture and bio matter that are beneficial like bioplastics, biofuels, etc. Environmental engineering focuses on the engineering of waste management systems for minimal environmental hazard like proper water disposal, charring of animal dungs to produce fuel, biofilters etc. Aquaponics systems is more a biosystems engineering project as it is integrated.

Structural engineers: design and build farm structures like pens, greenhouses, silos.

Job opportunities in agricultural engineering: Where does an agricultural engineer work?

Yes, agriculture is the only field of study that is capable of employing all fields of study because of the series of stages involved in the agricultural value chain. The reverse also holds for agricultural engineering. The only limitation, is that it is on individual basis; agricultural engineers are deployed based on specialization. For instance, farm power and machinery engineer is deployed to work with production machinery, soil and water engineer deals with irrigation operations and soil engineering while agricultural processing engineer will be deployed in agricultural processing operations and engineering.

If there is any engineer supposed to work in a food processing company, it is the agricultural engineer in the processing option, for not only did he learn the dynamics of processing, he learnt specifically and intricately, processing of agro products, and has in-depth knowledge of material handling for food safety. If there is any engineer to work on roads in the rural or semi urban areas; it is the agricultural engineer in soil and water option, for he did not just learn road construction as civil engineers; he learnt the different roads for specific uses and accompanying drainage systems for erosion control, in the agriculture-prone rural settings.

A question you may ask me is what is the role of civil engineers in building agricultural structure, be it residential, administrative or pen?  The answer is: he has no role there unless, in high-rise buildings. Agricultural engineering has as option called agricultural structural engineering. He understands the interaction of all the buildings in a farmstead for effective waste management, for proper rain harvesting and for harnessing climatic factors in agriculture more than any civil engineer ever can. He understands how prevailing wind direction affects crop and animal productivity and environmental pollution. I mean someone spent 5 years in the university just studying these interactions and that is the agricultural engineer of the structures option.  You can’t equate five years of study with a civil engineer’s design by induction.

I was at College of Deans of Engineering and Technology (CODET) 2019 competition for engineering students in Nigeria. About 85 per cent all the prototypes presented were in agricultural engineering. Mehn! There are jobs! There are opportunities in agricultural engineering because agriculture is forever young. I once joked and told my audience that if Microsoft liked, let them develop a software that digests food, we are still going to eat food not microchips.

We studied engineering in school not agriculture; but we know better how to apply it in agricultural value chain than any other engineer.

You may question, “why are they into the agrospace? One may say that they are putting in their experiences into agriculture. If they can work in agriculture because they can apply what they learnt in the classroom to agriculture, then an agricultural engineer can work in any engineering related firm for same reasons; by the way, we studied engineering in school not agriculture; but we know better how to apply it in agricultural value chain than any other engineer.

An agricultural engineer depending on the area of specialization, can work on the farm, in food processing companies, road construction companies, structural design companies, erosion control agencies and parastatals, water resource and management companies, borehole projects, any field of design and construction where his/her specific knowledge may be needed. An agricultural engineer can also be self-employed maintaining machinery, designing and fabrication of micro machinery and implements for processing, storage or automation, designing and managing microfarms, irrigating lawns, edible and otherwise.

The problem of agricultural engineers is not that there are no jobs. It is that we misunderstand our job. And there is no other person to change that misconception than us. There is no better time than now. So next time, someone tells you; you are an agricultural engineer, you should be on the farm, tell the person, wait a minute, let me educate you about agricultural engineering before I go. Then, you must have done your job. If you don’t win, the next agricultural engineer after you would; because you corrected an impression, the mission of RAEP

Would you study agricultural engineering or advise a friend to do so, having known what it is all about?

Uja, Chigozie Joy is an agricultural engineer and a writer. She is passionate about optimizing Africa’s agropotential and blogs about it on Agroven’s website and RAEP facebook group.

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