Agricultural engineers, also sometimes known as natural resource engineers, apply engineering principles of science and technology, as well as knowledge of agricultural practices, to solve problems relating to sustainable agricultural production, the environmental impacts of intensive agriculture and the post-harvest handling of agricultural products. They manage living things and life-giving resources in such a way as to protect and preserve them by using mechanical, civil and electronic engineering skills.
They design equipment, buildings, and dams, which can utilise the environment and resources more effectively, while ensuring their renewability and sustainability. Some practise in areas such as forestry, food processing, urban and rural development, agricultural machinery design and manufacturing.
Agricultural engineers design agricultural machinery and equipment and develop methods to improve the production, processing and distribution of food and other agricultural products. They are involved in the conservation and management of energy, soil and water resources. These engineers design and use instruments to study the effects of light, humidity and temperature on plants and animals. They also design structures for crop storage and animal shelters. Some teach at universities and universities of technology.
Agricultural engineering provides challenging career opportunities in various fields such as research, consulting, development, testing, engineering surveys, management, planning, teaching and counselling.
Areas of specialisation include:
Water supply and irrigation: Effective utilisation of available resources is of primary importance. In this field the agricultural engineer is involved with hydrology and farm dam design; canal, pipeline and pump systems; sprinkler, drip and micro-irrigation systems; mechanised irrigation; surface irrigation and drainage.
Agricultural Mechanisation: Agricultural machinery plays an important role in the production of food. Agricultural engineers assist producers, contractors and farmers with: tractor and other engine tests; development of new machinery; design of agricultural equipment; planning and evaluation of mechanisation systems; agricultural energy research and consultation; and appropriate technology for developing areas.
Soil conservation: Agricultural engineers’ civil engineering knowledge is essential for the planning and designing of: conservation and reclaiming structures; systems for the safe discharge of flood water; contour and other appropriate cultivation systems to safeguard vulnerable agricultural lands against erosion and specially adapted farming practices to enhance soil conservation.
Agricultural buildings and structures: This field includes the following: buildings for the intensive production of meat, dairy products, poultry and eggs; buildings with controlled environments such as green- and glass- houses, nurseries, and aquaculture; buildings for the storage and processing of products such as grain silos and dryers for maize, tobacco and fruit; and plastic sheeted tunnels for intensive cultivation of flowers and vegetables.
Food and fibre processing: Processing involves the preparation of commodities that are used by human beings or animals. Agricultural engineers guide entrepreneurs in the following: drying, milling, mixing, compacting, cooling, heating and liquidising of agricultural products; handling, storage, transportation and packing systems, for example, of fruit, vegetables and meat.
Work settings vary from indoors, in modern well-equipped laboratories and offices, to outdoors at farm sites. They may also vary according to the type, size, location and financial resources of the employer.