Inside Look At The Ohio State University’s Food, Agricultural, And Biological Engineering Program

Andrew Llopfenstein and Scott Shearer
Project coordinator Andrew Klopfenstein (left) and Dr. Scott Shearer show us some telemetry data from a Farmobile PUC on an iPad.

I hope you read my colleague Paul Schrimpf’s editorial that discusses some exciting changes we have on deck in the next couple months for the PrecisionAg brand.

Part of this somewhat massive undertaking, which is what marketers today commonly refer to as a “rebranding effort,” is for us editors to spend more time engaging with and covering the Land Grant Universities (as well as the various community colleges offering two-year programs and others like South Dakota State University) teaching precision farming to the next generation of John Deere field techs and ag UAV pilots.

With that in mind, back in October I accepted an invitation from longtime friends to PrecisionAg.com and The Ohio State University Food, Agricultural, and Biological Engineering Department (FABE) professors Dr. John Fulton and Dr. Scott Shearer to find out just what is going on down there in Columbus. We all know Central Ohio is typically Case IH country, but I learned a whole lot more from my trip to visit the guys than I originally thought I would.

Executing the Mission

After a cheery morning welcome upon my arrival from Fulton and his program manager, Kaylee Port, we grabbed some coffee and found a conference room so Fulton could set the stage for my day on campus (and boy, do I miss college!).

“We have three primary missions here in the program: education or instruction, research, and then the third which is unique to Land Grants, is the Extension Outreach arm, doing things like Farm Science Review and such,” Fulton explained in his easy going Alabama drawl, having come to Columbus via Auburn University. “And what we’re doing is, we’re creating learning communities. We’ve got a couple projects where you bring in industry, you’ve got us as academics, and then you bring those growers and agronomists into those learning communities. There’s a focus and an objective in mind, but everyone learns through the process and takes something back for themselves.”

At the time of my visit, much of the Department’s work within these learning communities was focusing on looking at different solutions for the annual Harmful Algal Bloom (HAB) that produces some nasty headlines (putting farmers and applicators directly in their cross-hairs, typically) during the summer months in the Buckeye State.

“When we think about moving the needle here in Ohio, top of mind comes the Lake Erie HAB, so we focus a lot on the phosphorus and nitrogen runoff, and so when we think precision ag we think about field execution, and we also think about information that drives decisions to improve profitability, and also the placement and timing of N and P,” he says. “I think that’s a lot of our motivation right now, is helping provide solutions for that situation in Lake Erie.”

Not to mention Shearer, who I also met with briefly that morning, is doing some interesting research work around UAVs with Dayton, OH-based commercial drone outfit 3-D Aerial, and he is also working with some grad students on an autonomous tractor project that is much unlike the big, flashy Case IH robot tractor that had growers drooling on the summer show circuit.

Let’s just say Shearer’s model isn’t as easy on the eye as Big Red, but its portability, scalability, and compaction-lessening footprint should have growers just as excited once it is commercialized.

Back to the Future

After kicking around the Department’s impressive large equipment storage area and workshops, and going for a quick spin around the parking lot with project coordinator Andrew Klopfenstein, Fulton introduced me to two sophomore students enrolled in the college, Jenna Lee and Matthew Klopfenstein.

OSU students
The Ohio State University’s FABE program sophmores Jenna Lee and Matthew Klopfenstein — both of whom hope to work in digital agriculture someday — shared some thoughts on the FABE program during our visit.

Both students grew up on grain farms, got exposed to precision agriculture practices by their fathers, and now both hope to one day find a career in the industry, Lee in powered machinery and Klopfenstein in production ag with an engineering aspect to it, he says. Both are actively monitoring the Lake Erie HAB situation with keen interest, knowing they will one day likely work within many of the affected communities if they stay in Ohio.

“The issues around water are just going to continue to keep growing and growing and growing,” Andrew Klopfenstein said. “I’ve heard someone say water is the new oil, it’s not just quality it’s also quantity too, so how do we manage that in such a manner that maximizes agricultural production with less and less water? And I think it’s going to be a collaborative effort here in Ohio with the Farm Bureau and the University and all the other players working together to try and solve those problems using some immediate solutions, whether that’s putting in some tile shutoffs or biomass filters, or as well as just looking at, are we following all the rules and regulations?”

The Muscle

After the students departed for afternoon classes, Fulton and I made our way back into the workshops to meet with Andrew Klopfenstein, whom I had tooled around the department parking lot, a few football fields distance from the OSU football stadium, in a Case IH Quadtrac tractor. Klopfenstein manages the work spaces and all of the equipment for FABE, along with his fourth-year undergrad student and right-hand man Ryan Tietje.

Andrew explained to me how the department strives to give the students as much hands-on, practical experience with the machinery and computing technologies as possible, while also closing the loop on how different machinery tweaks can effect production and harvest.

“And we also have an autosteer lab,” he adds. “You can talk all day about auto steer, you can show YouTube videos on it, but until you’re in that tractor and you push the button and let go of the steering wheel — it’s probably even harder for the students that grew up driving the tractor a lot, because there is just something wired in our brain that the left hand needs to be on the wheel and the right hand needs to be over here, to train yourself in some respects that you can’t keep your hand on the wheel.”

Tietje, who spent the summer doing an internship with Archibald Equipment, a Central Ohio Case IH dealership where he learned, among many things, just what a challenge connectivity and compatibility is within multi-color fleets, agrees the hands-on aspect of the program is perfect for an aspiring field technician like himself.

“You hit a little bit of everything, so you’re very marketable when you graduate,” he says during a break while making some repairs to Shearer’s impressive UAV command center trailer. “I’ve had animal science classes, these precision classes, welding classes, soil science and agronomy. I mean, you name it and I probably know something about it. So that’s exactly why I chose this major and getting to work with Andrew and the department has really helped.”

And with its impressive lineup of industry partners, along with the solid guidance and networking power within industry circles provided by Fulton and Shearer at the top, FABE will continue helping young people make their mark in precision agriculture for years to come.

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