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Faculty voices paint picture of BAE’s 75-year impact

Talk long enough with long-time faculty members about N.C. State University’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, and the conversation will eventually wind its way around to a 19th century Jean-Francois Millet painting called “Man With a Hoe.” The grim oil-on-canvas work depicts a gaunt farmer leaning wearily on his hoe as he toils to overturn the dirt on a rocky piece of land.

A copy of the painting hung in Weaver Labs for many years, reminding faculty and staff of what their work was all about: trying to relieve the farmer’s burden by taking much of the backbreaking drudgery out of farm work. As the department reaches the 75th anniversary of its founding, faculty and staff have reason to celebrate. They and their predecessors have largely accomplished that goal by mechanizing tilling, planting, cultivating, harvesting and drying of a range of crops and by developing new ways of housing farm animals.

Their efforts have reduced the amount of manual labor, raised yields, increased profits, protected the environment and created a safer supply of food and fiber.

The department dates its start to the year its first graduate, A.S. Knowles, who earned a bachelor’s degree in 1935. But for 22 years before that, N.C. State had employed two professional agricultural engineers to work on drainage issues associated with agriculture and road building, particularly in eastern North Carolina.

Over the years, the faculty, staff and student body grew and became more diverse, and so did the subjects of their study. Perspectives magazine sat down with 13 faculty members, present and past, to learn more about the department’s impact, its past and its future. Here’s a snapshot of what they had to say:

Mike Boyette (right) has developed many innovations for post-harvest problem-solving.
Mike Boyette (right) has developed many innovations for post-harvest problem-solving.

‘A link in the chain that goes back a lot of years’

“I came here in the fall of 1966. And I literally came out of the tobacco field. We actually harvested tobacco that morning. My roommate and I came in the afternoon. Our parents dropped us off, and we could have just as well been on the other side of the moon. But I very quickly found out that it was almost like a second home. That is something that those of us who are on the faculty have always tried to do: to make Bio and Ag Engineering a sort of second home to our students.

“I see my tenure in Bio and Ag Engineering as being just a link in the chain that goes back a lot of years. A lot of what I do and use in the work came from people whom I sat at the feet of years ago. I teach seniors, and I do my dead level best to impart to them all the ideas and stories and things that I learned about how to be a good engineer, how to be a good person, how to be a productive citizen.”

Dr. Mike Boyette earned his bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. in agricultural engineering at N.C. State and became an Extension specialist in 1983. His innovations related to tobacco are part of a departmental legacy that has helped reduce the amount of farm labor used to grow and harvest tobacco and deliver it to market, from about 600 hours per acre before the department was started to about 30 hours per acre today. Boyette’s efforts have led to improved sweet potato storage, the practice of baling and tagging tobacco for market and the reduction of harmful nitrosamines in cured tobacco.

Putting the B into BAE

“When Dr. Pat Hassler came to the department [in 1950], he was a young Ph.D. out of Michigan State, and I think [the late department head] Professor Giles put him pretty much in charge of trying to get our graduate program going, and he did a tremendous job of it. At that time, it was just known as Agricultural Engineering, but he got the Biological tacked on pretty quickly, because he felt that was really what we did: We worked with biological systems. So I think that the development of that program and consequently the development of … national and worldwide recognition [for the department] was pretty much a result of his work in the graduate programs in the late ’50s and ’60s.”

George Blum, perhaps the oldest of the old-timers, came to NC State as a student in 1944 and served as BAE’s undergraduate coordinator for 22 years.

Early roots of N.C. State’s biomedical engineering program

Charles Suggs
Charlie Suggs was the department’s first Ph.D. graduate and went on to lay the very early foundations of the biomedical engineering program.

“I grew up in southeastern North Carolina in Columbus County. I remember as a youngster harvesting tobacco thinking, ‘Couldn’t we develop a device that would reduce the labor in this job and automatically remove the leaves?’ Then being interested in all these problems of working out in the field and the trauma and problems that were associated with that, I did a master’s degree in heat stress. I looked at the problems of temperature and humidity and the hot sunshine and how they affected your ability to get the job done. … I went to work in the department on tobacco mechanization, and then between 1955 and 1959 I finished the Ph.D. We continued to look at some of the heat stress problems and also did the actual work involved in the development of devices to automatically remove (tobacco) leaves, collect them and process them.”

Dr. Charlie Suggs, the department’s first Ph.D. graduate and a faculty member, helped lay the very early foundations of the biomedical engineering program and develop the  mechanical tobacco leaf harvester.

From farm fields to food safety

“[As an undergraduate] I got a summer job working for a professor in the Ag Engineering Department. His name was Bill Splinter [later vice chancellor for research at the University of Nebraska], who helped … mechanize the harvesting and post-harvesting curing of tobacco. I look back on those days with a lot of fondness, but I used to have some really terrible jobs: Can you imagine sitting out in July in the tobacco fields out at Clayton, under the tobacco plants measuring leaf area? They used to get worried about me; they would come over and see how red-faced I was, and they would take me out and put me in the shade of the tree-line next to the field and get me a Coke or a cold cup of water … to make sure I was O.K.”

Dr. Tom Whitaker, a Raleigh native and N.C. State bachelor’s and master’s graduate who became U.S. Department of Agriculture researcher and BAE faculty member in 1967. He went on to develop standardized tests for carcinogenic mycotoxins in peanuts, corn, almonds and Brazil nuts. He remains on the faculty.

The development of bulk tobacco curing

Bill Johnson
Dr. Bill Johnson is credited with many developments that led to widespread adoption of bulk curing of tobacco.

“There were lots and lots of advantages of bulk curing: Number one was the labor-saving advantage. … The conventional curing process required stringing or tying the leaves on sticks; it took an enormous amount of labor simply to string tobacco, place it on sticks and then place it into the curing barn, remove it from the barn and then remove it from the sticks and so forth.

“Bulk curing reduced that significantly. … The second advantage would be probably savings of space. The bulk barn requires only a fraction – maybe one-fourth or one-fifth – as much room as tobacco hung loosely in a conventional barn. And then safety – the fire hazard was considerably reduced. And I think the uniformity of the curing is better in a bulk situation than in the individual stringing conventional barns.”

Dr. Bill Johnson (B.S. 1954, M.S. 1956 and Ph.D. 1961) joined the faculty in 1961 and is credited with many developments that led to widespread adoption of bulk curing of tobacco.

Helping build a new industry

BAE innovations helped transform N.C.'s swine industry
BAE innovations helped transform N.C.'s swine industry.

In 1966, “there was a real emphasis by [college] administration to look at other commodity areas that would provide economic stimulus to agriculture, in addition to tobacco, which was king at that time. And one of the areas was hogs, because farmers in North Carolina had grown hogs all their lives — not a lot of hogs, but they always had them, and many people referred to them as a mortgage lifter.  We had found some innovative farmers who were interested in confinement rearing of pig. …We developed the swine development center, a unified effort utilizing the expertise of engineers, animal husbandry, swine specialists, economics people and entomologists, in 1972 [at the Upper Coastal Plains Research Station in Rocky Mount].

“We had people coming from all over the United States, in fact from all over the world, to see the center, where we could take the results of research and the information that we had gleaned from the experiences and put it into practice. And then we published a production and financial summary each year, which provided economic data for raising hogs in confinement and controlling the environment to a great extent. North Carolina was probably 13th or 14th in the nation at that point in time (in swine production). And now we’re either number one or number two in the United States. It’s had a great impact.”

Bynum Driggers, who came to N.C. State in 1966 as an Extension specialist to work on swine and poultry housing.

Shifting focus from machinery to environment

Ervin Humphries
Ervin Humphries' early career focused on mechanically harvesting cucumbers, but in later years he developed ways to recycle cucumber brine.

“During the earlier part of my tenure here, the department concentrated a lot of its efforts on machines and processes to eliminate and make the labor involved in agriculture a little more tolerable to human beings. We worked on a lot of machines. We worked on a lot of processes.  But we don’t do much machine-type research any more. Most of the things we do today have to do with the environment, water safety, and water quality.

Dr. Ervin Humphries came to N.C. State as a freshman in 1954 and joined the faculty in 1960. He focused on mechanical cucumber harvesting, methods to reduce physical damage cause in the storage and handling of horticultural crops and, later, ways to recycle cucumber brine used in pickle manufacturing rather than to discharge it into streams.

Bill Hunt
Bill Hunt is a nationally leading environmental engineer.

‘A lot that BAE can be applied to’

“The department has been very good about embracing and seeing that we don’t have to be confined to one very specific field, but there is a lot that biological and agricultural engineering can be applied to. We have not lost the core of what we do; it still deals with the safe – and I mean safe both from a consumption standpoint and an environmental standpoint – production of food and fiber. … I go across the country and people say, ‘You are not in the civil engineering department?’ And I say, ‘No, I’m in the Bio and Ag Engineering Department. It actually makes sense: How does a stormwater wetland work? How does a green roof work? How do rain gardens work? They all use biological principles; they are all biology-based systems.’”

-Dr. Bill Hunt earned his master’s degree in BAE at N.C. State before becoming an Extension specialist and nationally recognized expert on urban stormwater management. An associate professor, he has been affiliated with the department for 15 years.

Enrollment growth, decline and growth again

Mari Chinn (right)
Mari Chinn (left) is a bioprocessing engineer.

“When I first started here, the biomedical engineering concentration [which began in BAE] had developed into its own department [in 2003], and so our department had to recover from the loss of some of those faculty and a lot of those students. I went from teaching a class that was 58 students, and then the following year, when BME left, to 13. Since then, year after year, we’ve increased our student population. … And the students seem to be very happy. Now I have 43 in my class. Some of the attractive points are  bioenergy and environmental engineering programs. But I have also noticed that our traditional agriculture numbers are going up as well.”

Dr. Mari Chinn joined the faculty in 2003 as a bioprocess engineering professor and researcher. Her research focuses on renewable materials that can be converted into value-added products – for example, turning sweet sorghum into ethanol.

4-H Electric Congress
Delegates greet an Extension official at 4-H Electric Congress, a BAE project for more than six decades.

Reaching out through 4-H

“The 4-H Electric Program gives 5,000 to 6,000 youth each year the opportunity to develop life skills as they learn about electricity. This year will be the 63rd consecutive 4-H Electric Congress. Based on the youth I see, the future (for North Carolina) looks very good. They’re not only very involved in this program, but they are involved in their communities. And they all have very high goals.”

-Dr. Grant Ellington earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees from BAE. He leads the department’s youth programs and conducts research on tobacco mechanization.


“When I came [in 1966], most people in the department, both faculty and students, grew up on farms and were familiar with machinery and crops and animals and what really went on on a farm. That has changed greatly over the years to where those who have an agricultural background are in a minority. Another change was the diversity of students and faculty: Initially all of the students were male, and I don’t know exactly what the ratio is now, but during the time we had the biomedical program, that ration was about 50-50 between male and female students. The same is true of the faculty: It was all male, and we have a number of female faculty members now. Also, we have a number of international faculty members from China, India, Nepal, Egypt and France – and probably others that I have missed. So rather than it being an all-U.S.A. faculty and very largely North Carolina … it has become a world or international faculty.”

-Dr. Jim Young served as department head from 1999 to 2006. His research led to energy-saving improvements in peanut drying and tobacco curing.

Wayne Skaggs
Wayne Skaggs says water, energy and the environment will be among the issues agricultural engineers will work on solving in the future.

Looking ahead

“There are three areas [key in BAE’s future]: Water is going to be just a massive issue for the next 50 years. If you look at projections on water supplies and water scarcities on a global basis, as well as on a national basis, into the future, it is a frightening picture. Energy is obviously important; we’ve got to be independent as far as energy is concerned. Bio-based energy is the area that many people feel is going to be what replaces our need for foreign oil and for coal resources and so forth. But there are many problems associated with that. And the other [area of importance] is the general environment: As we have more and more people and as we do new things such as develop biologically based production of energy, that will challenge us environmentally….  So lots of challenges in the future — and interesting, important challenges.”

Dr. Wayne Skaggs joined the faculty in 1970 to conduct research on drainage and drainage water management. His research on controlled drainage in shallow water-table soils has helped reduce nitrogen losses to coastal streams and estuaries by close to 2 million pounds per year in North Carolina alone. Such efforts earned him the prestigious Alexander von Humboldt Award in 1997 as well as entry into the National Academy of Engineering.

A vision for the future

“I think I could summarize my vision into three components: First for the department to be recognized by our peers as one of the elite biological and agricultural engineering departments in the country. We have for many years been bouncing back and forth in the [top] six-to-eight range, but I think it would be a milestone if we were to move up into that top five. Second, for the department to have state-of-the-art facilities for research and teaching. And third, for every member of the faculty to be recognized nationally and internationally as a leader in their program area. … The key is having a very accomplished faculty.”

Dr. Robert Evans, who earned bachelor’s, master’s and doctoral degrees in engineering at N.C. State, served as an Extension specialist beginning in 1983 and became BAE Department head in 2006.

Note: The BAE department celebrated its 75th anniversary on May 13 with morning golf, an afternoon picnic, tours, seminars, a reception and a banquet. See

— Dee Shore

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