October 04, 2022

Careers in Agriculture: Working with farmers to design, build facilities

Ag engineer

PEORIA, Ill. — Working on anaerobic digestion research projects while studying at Iowa State University helped Gayle Baker find her career path.

Growing up on her family’s 120-head dairy farm in northeast Iowa, Baker was a 4-H member and county dairy princess.

“I loved agriculture and talking about dairy, so I really thought my path was heading towards ag communications,” she said. “But all I knew for sure was I wanted to go to Iowa State University.”

While milking cows together, Baker’s mom suggested engineering since her daughter had good grades in math and science.

“That wasn’t something on my radar,” she admitted. “So, I got a list of engineering majors and at the top was agricultural and I didn’t even know that was a thing.”

Baker decided to major in ag engineering. However, she quickly found out she was not fully prepared for college.

“High school came so easy to me that when I got to college I didn’t know how to study and that freshman year was a little rough,” she recalled.

The college student got a pep talk from her mom and she met professor Robert Burns.

“I started doing research on anaerobic digestion and I saw the potential of what I could do,” Baker said. “Dr. Burns was a huge influence on my career and that’s why I encourage young girls to get involved in college.”

By learning more about careers, the ag engineer said, students can find out if that is really the type of work they want to do when they graduate.

“Do research and internships because college is great as long as you go there with a purpose,” she said.

After completing her degree in ag engineering with a focus on environment and structures in 2010, Baker applied for a job with the Illinois Natural Resources Conservation Service.

“I saw Ruth Book at the annual meeting of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers,” she said. “She had just received my application and then she interviewed me at the meeting.”

A month later, Baker started her job at NRCS where she worked for four years designing waterways and terraces and training field staff.

“It was a great job to start with, but I missed livestock,” Baker said.

“I was reviewing these plans that technical service providers were writing and it was making me crave it more,” she said. “I realized I missed poop.”

While working on one of the NRCS projects, Baker met her current boss at Maurer-Stutz Inc.

“I called him one day and asked if they were looking for an engineer and he said yes,” she said.

Baker has worked in the agricultural division of the multidiscipline civil engineering firm for eight years, where she started as a design engineer and now is a project manager.

“And I’m also a part owner after buying in as a minority partner in February,” she said. “I didn’t know it at the time when I was scrapping freestalls at 4 a.m. on our dairy farm that I would love poop for the rest of my life.”

As a project manager, Baker works with all types of livestock and she has multiple projects in various phases.

“I’ve got two projects that are ready to start construction and a couple projects that are just starting,” she said. “I couldn’t do anything without my agronomist, Daniel Feucht, who is a huge part of writing comprehensive nutrient management plans.”

One of Baker’s current projects is at a dairy farm near Tremont, Illinois, for brothers Kappy and Chuck Koch.

“This is a fun dairy to work with because it’s not just brand new, I had to figure out how to use the current site and build a new one,” Baker explained. “Their main goal is to get more manure storage and to utilize sand separation so they can pull out the sand to reuse it.”

Koch initiated the project in 2020.

“This is an EQIP project through NRCS and we started by writing a CNMP,” Baker said. “He got the funding in 2021 and the round tank was constructed in the fall of 2021.”

The dairymen added the round tank to achieve over 12 months of manure storage.

“The sand lane and the concrete for the new freestall barn was completed this summer,” Baker said. “Sand lane systems are able to recover 70% of the sand, which really saves money on bedding costs, it pulls that sand out of the storage and sand is hard on equipment, so it really helps to conserve their equipment.”

The goal is to have the freestall barn in operation by the end of the year.

“They are still going to milk their cows in the parlor,” Baker said. “But eventually they’d like to put in robot milkers in this barn.”

Seeing the improvement on the dairy farm is one of Baker’s greatest joys.

“I know when this is done, it will be a huge improvement to their operation,” she said. “It will change how their man hours are distributed, so the time they spent hauling manure twice a year can be spent with the management of their cows.”

Another joy for Baker is when her projects appear on Goggle Maps.

“I have a project in Texas and the other day I looked at it on Goggle Maps and I can see everything mid-construction,” she said.

In addition to her bachelor’s degree, Baker is also a professional engineer who is licensed to work in seven states.

“I was not looking to work in Texas, but an existing client bought a poultry site in Texas,” she said. “It is interesting to design from a distance.”

Managing expectations of clients can be a challenge, the ag engineer noted.

“You have to make sure communication is clear and people communicate differently,” Baker said.

“I’ve had projects go really well because the client and I understand each other,” she said. “I’ve had projects go poorly because there are too many people and the communication gets lost.”

Construction is the other part of Baker’s job that gives her the most anxiety.

“Construction is the coolest part because you see your project come to life,” Baker said. “But if things go sideways, you have to mitigate it.”

“This project has gone really well because Kappy has called me any time something doesn’t make sense on my plan or he is concerned about something so I can explain what needs to be done,” she said.

Martha Blum

Martha Blum

Field Editor