Case Study: Agricultural Engineer - Rebecca

What do you do?

I'm an agricultural engineer. I specialise in irrigation. I help farmers improve production on their farms by providing expertise and advice on irrigation and water management. I also help educate farm consultants, so that they can integrate new technologies and methods in their business with their clients.

I also attend meetings to give technical advice to groups that give out agricultural grants. I help organise conferences and workshops, and I work on projects to test new technologies or methods.

What is your background?

I studied a year of physics and then switched to agricultural engineering at university. I was very interested in the hands-on approach to learning and the working farm on the campus.

I felt that as an agricultural engineer I would be able to have a positive impact on society by providing technical support to the agricultural sector. I was attracted by the connection to environmental issues and the opportunity to spend some of my working time outside.

I did my degree and then did a Masters degree in agricultural engineering. I worked as a research assistant in an acoustics laboratory, then as a manager of a water control and pollution reduction project. I then worked in consulting as a water treatment manager, before becoming an agricultural engineer.

What characteristics do you need to be successful in your job?

People skills are very important in this job. You need to work effectively with your colleagues (other professionals) and your clients (the farmers).

Agricultural engineers need the ability to listen, understand the problem, process the information, identify the needs of the client, and find a solution. They also have to be able to explain things clearly to the client. Excellent research and writing skills are also important.

I think you also need to be a very organised person and be able to handle many projects or tasks at once.

What other jobs could you do using the skills from this job?

The field of agricultural engineering is very broad; agricultural engineers gain many skills that, with further development, could lead to many other interesting careers.

Agricultural engineers could switch into another engineering field such as civil, mechanical, chemical, computer, environmental or hydrological.

Agricultural engineers also have hands-on skills that could lead to work as a mechanic, electrician, plumber, welder, machinist, or areas in construction.

Professions in research, training or policy development might be options, as well. Because of their knowledge of agriculture, agricultural engineers could also pursue a career in agri-business or as a farmer.

What changes will there be in the future?

Agricultural engineering is becoming part of a wider field called 'biosystems engineering', which encompasses all cases where there is a need to address engineering problems in a biological setting.

The agricultural industry as a whole is facing increasing challenges. How will we produce more food for our growing population from a limited land base and water resource? This will be the challenge for new agricultural engineers.

What are the biggest challenges in your job?

Because I am relatively new to the workforce, the hardest part about my job is being asked questions by farmers that I have no immediate answer for.

I think that for agricultural engineers, in general, our field is very challenging; we are analysing and designing complex systems and we can't always control all the variables.

It's stressful to think that people's health and safety rely on your decisions and your designs.

The challenges for farmers are increasing and, as a result, there is an increasing need for agricultural engineers; agriculture is an industry that requires the support of engineering experts.

Are there many opportunities to enter this career?

There are lots of opportunities to get into agricultural engineering. Firstly, an engineering degree is necessary. Secondly, begin working on expanding your contacts in agricultural engineering and broaden your knowledge base.

Take advantage of opportunities for relevant work experience.

What do you like about your job?

I love the fact that in my job I make a positive impact on a farmer's operation. For example, I might show a farmer how he or she can double the production of a particular crop, whilst using the same amount of water - just by using better conservation practices. That part's really satisfying.

Related to this, is the technical side of my job, which is bringing technical solutions to practical applications, such as using new soil moisture sensors to help a farmer choose the best time to water the crops. That aspect is very interesting, too.

I also enjoy working with other people. It's a very social job, and I get to work with farmers, scientists, government people and conservation groups. It's not one of those jobs where I'm spending all my time in a lab or working by myself.

What do you dislike about your job?

Being an agricultural engineer can be a stressful job for some people, because there is so much riding on the advice that you give. Farmers' livelihoods, and even their physical safety, depend on you, your designs and the advice you give. But, for me, that's what makes the job important and interesting.

What advice would you give to someone interested in your career?

Before, and during, university, take advantage of opportunities to work in agriculture or engineering, to see how things are actually done in the field, as well as what new technologies are being used. This will help you to understand what you're studying and give you a chance to make contacts in the area you want to work in.

A day in the life

8:15 am - 9:00 am

Responding to emails and voicemails. Setting up meetings with colleagues about a water and irrigation workshop we are organising. We discuss who will speak, what topics will be covered, and how much we have budgeted for it.

9:00 am - 9:30 am

Organising a water management conference. Calling colleagues, academics and industry experts. Arranging speakers on topics such as water quality, monitoring soil moisture, disease protection and frost protection.

9:30 am - 1:00 pm

Meeting with farmers and the local conservation authority. Providing technical advice about alternative water supply projects and water quality projects. There are about seven people at this meeting, which is held on one of the farmer's properties.

1:00 pm - 1:45 pm

Lunch.

1:45 pm - 2:00 pm

Finding a specific scientific article requested by a colleague and sending it to him.

2:00 pm - 3:30 pm

Researching information on new water saving technologies. I use the internet, call contacts, email experts and read research articles.

3:30 pm - 5:00 pm

Visiting a farm. I do this regularly, either because it is a farm trying a new technique, or because it is a farm with a problem outside of the scope of local irrigation consultants.

5:00 pm - 8:00 pm

Home.

8:00 pm - 9:00 pm

Reading a scientific paper or industry magazine.

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