Kansas leads most of the nation when it comes to agriculture, and it’s a tradition that has existed since before the Sunflower State joined the Union. Over the course of time, much about farming has changed in each of Kansas’ 105 counties – from crop rotations to farm equipment to irrigation technologies. Dr. Jonathan Aguilar is one of the researchers from Kansas State University helping farmers use the latest innovations to improve their harvest.
Dr. Aguilar hails from the Philippines, where he received both his bachelor’s and master’s degrees in agricultural engineering from the University of the Philippines-Los Baños (UPLB). While there, his studies focused on land and water resources as it pertained to irrigated agriculture and environmental stewardship. After graduating, he continued to work at the university as a researcher, as well as taking on several water resource-related projects with the UPLB Foundation, the Philippine Department of Agriculture, and the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. Dr. Aguilar came to K-State to pursue his doctoral degree in biological and agricultural engineering and graduated in 2009. He joined the faculty here in 2012.
Water use is something that both researchers and farmers have explored for decades: what happens to a crop when irrigation is reduced? All backyard gardeners or self-proclaimed green thumb know that plants need water. But how much water is enough? What amount still guarantees healthy plant growth and a good yield of wheat, corn, alfalfa, sorghum, or sunflower? Agricultural engineers are experimenting with new ways to grow more with less water in a process called deficit irrigation: it’s a practice where farmers reduce the amount of water applied to a crop, allowing mild stress to the growing plants.
According to the FAO, irrigated agriculture uses more than 70 percent of the water withdrawn from the earth’s rivers; in developing countries around the world, that figure can exceed 80 percent. In Kansas, irrigation accounts for 85 percent of all consumptive water use – mainly from the Ogallala aquifer. With unsure rainfalls and aquifers diminishing faster than they can recharge, the trick is knowing exactly how much stress a crop can take, and precisely adjusting irrigation to still result in a profitable harvest. Dr. Isaya Kisekka, an assistant professor in K-State’s Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, is working to take the guesswork out of the equation and give farmers the tools they need to maintain their net profitability and protect the state’s water resources for future Kansas farmers.
Dr. Isaya Kisekka didn’t dream about becoming an agricultural engineer. In fact, while taking his university entrance examinations in his home country of Uganda, Kisekka was imagining his future in the field of electrical engineering.
It wasn’t in the cards. In Uganda, the government influences what students will study while at university, especially for those students like Kisekka who received merit government scholarships. Kisekka’s test scores missed the mark for electrical engineering, but paved the way for a new path: agricultural engineering.
“I thank God I ended up as an agricultural engineer because I have found it to be a very fulfilling career: you do things that directly impact peoples’ livelihoods,” he says.