Biological and Agricultural Engineering

A historical narrative of BAE

A brief history of the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California, Davis.

Prelude:  1862 – 1914

The Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at the University of California, Davis owes its origin to federal and state legislation that enabled the establishment of the University of California shortly after the end of the American Civil War and the development of a University Farm School four decades later to support a growing agricultural sector in California.  The Agricultural Colleges Land Grant Act (Morrill Act) was passed by Congress in 1862 to provide equal access to higher education and employment in agriculture and industry.  Introduced by Congressman Justin Morrill from Vermont, the act provided 30,000 acres of federal land for each senator and representative in a state’s congressional delegation [1].  Proceeds from the sale of the land were to be “inviolably appropriated…to the endowment, support, and maintenance of at least one college where the leading object shall be, without excluding other scientific and classical studies, and including military tactics, to teach such branches of learning as are related to agriculture and the mechanic arts…in order to promote the liberal and practical education of the industrial classes in the several pursuits and professions in life.”  These grants funded the establishment of sixty-nine colleges across the U.S., including the University of California in 1868 with the first campus at Berkeley.  In 1905, the California University Farm Bill authorized the UC Regents to purchase land for the establishment of a University Farm School to provide practical experience and training in agriculture [2].  Davisville, situated in the Great Central Valley and within the principal agricultural region of the state, was selected in 1906 as the site for the University Farm.  The city was renamed Davis in 1907 and the University Farm School opened in 1909.  Classes were developed in farm shop, forge, and drafting, and following a national trend, planning began for a more comprehensive program in engineering applied to agriculture.  The first academic appointment in agricultural engineering at Davis was likely that in 1914 of Frank L. Peterson, Assistant Professor in Farm Mechanics, who taught courses in farm tractors and mechanics just prior to the establishment of a Division of Agricultural Engineering [3, 4]. 1914 also saw the enactment of the federal Smith-Lever Act that created Cooperative Extension services as partnerships between the land-grant colleges and the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) [5].

The Division/Department of Agricultural Engineering in the College of Agriculture:   1915 – 1961

The Division of Agricultural Engineering at the University Farm in Davis was formally established in 1915.  John Brownlee Davidson, one of 38 appointments to the Department of Agriculture made by the UC Regents during the 1914-1915 fiscal year, was recruited from Iowa State University and arrived as Professor of Agricultural Engineering to build a department at Davis comparable to what had recently been developed in Iowa as the first agricultural engineering program in the nation [6-7].   Davidson was appointed the founding head of the division.  Davidson had also been instrumental in organizing the American Society of Agricultural Engineers (ASAE) in 1907 and served as the society’s first president.  Davidson laid the foundation of the division at Davis and saw it move into its new headquarters in the Agricultural Engineering Building in 1917 before returning to Iowa in 1919.  Davidson had recruited Leonard J. Fletcher as an Instructor in Agricultural Engineering who took over as head to continue to build the division and its faculty.  Fletcher was also instrumental in recruiting the first agricultural extension engineers, Edward J. Stirniman and then Jim Fairbank when Stirniman moved to the division.  After Fletcher, Stirniman served a year as acting head and was succeeded by Harry B. Walker in 1928.  Walker remained as head through the Great Depression and World War II until resigning the position in favor of Roy Bainer in 1947.  The division also occupied new quarters in 1928 in a building later (1959) named Harry B. Walker Hall in honor of his long and distinguished tenure at Davis.  Bainer, who had been a student of Walker’s at Kansas State University before Walker moved to Davis, had joined the division in 1929 shortly after Walker arrived.

During this period the division engaged in a wide range of research including work in air filtration for tractor engines, frost protection, heat and mass transfer in plant and animal environments, bio-meteorology and microclimatology, pest control, farm power, irrigation, farm structures, construction materials, waste management, sanitation, soil compaction, bulk handling and processing of fruits and vegetables, crop harvesting, and other agricultural innovations.  University manuals and bulletins, such as the extensive work on adobe construction for farm and other structures by J. Dewey Long in 1929 [8] (revised by Loren W. Neubauer in 1946), ASAE papers and other publications and patents rapidly built the reputation of the faculty.  The division undertook major projects in sugar beet mechanization during World War II to avoid the same sugar shortages that had plagued the country during World War I, and later in the development of mechanized tomato harvesting and rollover protection structures (ROPS) for tractors and other mobile equipment among many others.  The rollover protection structure was designated a historical landmark by the ASAE in 1986.  The tomato harvester was similarly honored in 2005 by the newly named American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers (ASABE).

Agricultural Engineering also handled the University farm plan service, developing detailed plans for farm labor housing, dairy buildings, beef, swine, and poultry facilities, fruit dryers, and others.  The department administered the California Committee on the Relation of Electricity to Agriculture (CREA) when it was formed in 1924, a function the department continued (after 1975 as the Committee on the Relation of Energy to Agriculture) until 1996 when the electricity sector in California was restructured under legislative deregulation (Assembly Bill 1890) of the state’s utilities.  The division’s work on atmospheric processes, meteorology and climatology would later lead to the establishment of a separate atmospheric science program.

Formal degree programs were organized by the division beginning in 1926.  The first academic program in Agricultural Engineering was created as an option in Mechanical Engineering at UC Berkeley and consisted of three years at Berkeley followed by a six week intensive project-based summer course of instruction and the fourth year at Davis [7].  Second year students attended an orientation course taught by Walker and Bainer who commuted to Berkeley for this purpose until 1956 when the course was taught entirely at Davis. The division also taught students in a two year non-degree program.

Teaching was suspended during World War II when the U.S. Army Signal Corps took over the campus, and the intensive summer course was discontinued when the program resumed under a revised curriculum after the war.  The College of Letters and Science was established at Davis in 1951 and began offering majors in mathematics, physics, and chemistry.  With basic courses in these subjects now available at Davis, the division moved the first two years of the agricultural engineering curriculum from Berkeley to Davis, sent students to Berkeley or UC Los Angeles (or in some cases Stanford) for the third year, and then had the students return to finish the program at Davis during the fourth year.  The division also had responsibility for teaching in vocational agriculture until these programs were sufficiently developed at the community colleges and at a number of California State University campuses.

A conspicuous lack of adequate texts to use in teaching the growing field of agricultural engineering led the Ferguson Foundation to finance an Agricultural Engineering Series of textbooks that were published by Wiley beginning in 1950.  Faculty from Davis authored three of the seven texts including Tractors and Their Power Units in 1952, Principles of Farm Machinery in 1955, and Agricultural Process Engineering also in 1955 [9-11].  Soon to follow were other works from Davis such as those by Neubauer and Bainer on farm building design, Norman B. Akesson and Wesley E. Yates on the use of aircraft in agriculture, and John C. Harper on elements of food engineering [12-14].

The first Bachelor of Science degree in Agricultural Engineering at Davis was awarded to James R. Tavernetti in 1927, with Eugene G. McKibben earning the first Masters of Science degree in the same year.  The first PhD was awarded in 1960 to David van Rest, working with Prof. Clarence Kelly, after the division had been restructured as a department within the College of Agriculture following the College’s becoming independent of UC Berkeley in 1952.

UC Davis was designated an independent campus of the University of California system in 1959.  That same year, UC President Clark Kerr formed a state-wide committee to consider the future of engineering education across the University.  Kenneth Pitzer, Dean of Chemistry and Chemical Engineering at UC Berkeley and chair of the committee, felt that Davis was the logical campus at which to start a new engineering college because Davis already had an established engineering program.  At Pitzer’s request, Roy Bainer, who was the Davis representative to the committee, together with other members of the Davis faculty organized a proposal for a department of engineering at UC Davis.  Following the proposal’s adoption by the committee, Bainer wrote an amendment to the standing orders of the UC Regents to extend the College of Engineering at UC Berkeley to UC Davis.  The amendment was authorized by the Regents in 1961 and the Department of Engineering was established at UC Davis, a department that within a year became the College of Engineering.

A Tale of Two Colleges—Development of the College of Engineering:   1962 – 1991

In 1962 the UC Regents authorized a separate College of Engineering at UC Davis and Bainer was appointed the founding dean.  The College of Engineering was extended to include the Livermore Branch of the University of California Radiation Laboratory, then named the Lawrence Radiation Laboratory at Livermore and now the Lawrence Livermore National Laboratory.  Bainer and the other faculty initially retained the single department structure for the College.  The accompanying organization of the Department of Applied Science in 1963 with branches at Livermore and Davis was, however, considered beyond what the College operating as a single department could accommodate and that same year the College formed into separate departments.  The Department of Agricultural Engineering now had two homes:  the College of Agriculture which was renamed the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences in 1967, and the College of Engineering.  The original faculty among the other four departments—Chemical, Civil, Electrical, and Mechanical Engineering—in the college were drawn from Agricultural Engineering and retained twenty percent time in department.  Bainer recruited another sixty-five faculty to the engineering college between 1962 and his retirement in 1969.  Planning for a new engineering building culminated in the occupancy of Roy Bainer Hall in 1967.  The building was named in 1969 in honor of Bainer’s service as the College’s first dean.

The Agricultural Engineering major was administered by the department through the College of Engineering and was now taught entirely at UC Davis.  The department continued teaching in the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences with programs in Agricultural Practices, Agricultural Engineering Technology, and Consumer Technology.  Three years after its founding and with only a complement of transfer students having graduated so far to demonstrate the success of the teaching programs, the College successfully applied for accreditation by the Engineering Council for Professional Development (ECPD), what is now the Accreditation Board for Engineering and Technology (ABET).  Agricultural Engineering at Davis had earlier been accredited by ECPD and was reaccredited in 1965 with a new curriculum within the College of Engineering.

During this period the department expanded into a number of new areas of research while continuing significant developments in agricultural mechanization, farm power, farm structures, irrigation, and plant and animal environments. The earlier work on climatology and biometeorology led to the development in 1970 of the Division of Atmospheric Science within the department, and subsequently the formation in 1975 of the Atmospheric Science program that is now part of the UC Davis Department of Land, Air and Water Resources. Members of the Division of Atmospheric Science were instrumental in advising the newly formed California Air Resources Board in establishing some of the state’s early air pollution standards.  In 1984, R. Paul Singh together with Dennis Heldman published the first edition of what has become one of the standard texts in food engineering [15].  This text is now in its 5th edition and has been translated into six different languages.  Significant effort also went into the development of digital records and online information.  The computerized Agricultural Engineering Index developed by William J. Chancellor at Davis was first made available to ASAE members via the “floppy-disc-copying session” at the 1986 ASAE annual meeting.  At that time it contained citations of all ASAE published articles and many papers since 1950 as well as citations from several long-standing international journals.  By 2000 the database included a total of about 41,000 items available through internet download and was maintained until ASAE released that same year a full publications database to members.

Over this same time, national and global events and changes in social attitudes affecting energy supplies, resource management, and food production were also affecting agricultural engineering education.  While in the U.S. the total number of people employed in the agricultural and food system remained nearly constant at close to 35 million from 1900 to 1990, a rapid decline occurred after World War II in employment in production agriculture so that by the year 2000 only about 5 million were working in this sector [16].  The first oil shock of 1973-74 highlighted vulnerabilities in the energy supply for agriculture and other industries and raised large concerns with continued heavy reliance on petroleum, particularly imported oil.  Social influences emerging after 1960 were adding new emphasis on policies to improve environmental protection and resource use and management.  In 1979, the University of California was sued by California Rural Legal Assistance on behalf of farmworkers, accusing the University of unlawfully spending public funds on mechanization research that displaced farmworkers and small family farmers [17, 18].  Although the suit lost on appeal, it reflected an uncertainty at that time over the net social benefits accruing from public research into agricultural mechanization. Nationally, student enrollments in agricultural engineering programs that had grown rapidly between 1940 and 1960 began to decline after 1980.   While throughout this period the department was initiating new programs in food engineering, forest engineering, aquacultural engineering, bioenergy conversion, bioinstrumentation and control, biotechnology, automation, farm safety and related areas, and also expanding professional involvement in organizations such as the Institute of Biological Engineering (IBE)  and the Institute of Food Technologists (IFT), student enrollments, especially at the undergraduate level, did not reflect the growing emphasis in biological engineering.  The increase in the breadth of the program and a desire to enhance the education and professional training of students in these areas stimulated a fundamental reassessment of the department’s scope and mission that led to a renaming of the department in 1992 and a restructuring of its curricula.

The Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering:  1992 – present

The expanding effort in other areas of biological engineering led to a proposal by the department that was approved in 1992 to change its name to the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering.  The department was not alone in this transition—virtually all departments of agricultural engineering nationwide underwent similar adjustments to their identities although not all adopted the same name.  The trend was also reflected in changes to ABET accreditation standards.  In the same year the department implemented new engineering curricula in Biological Systems Engineering through the College of Engineering at both the undergraduate and graduate levels to replace the Agricultural Engineering major, and realized an immediate response through an increase in the number and diversity of student applications and enrollments.  Subsequent faculty and staff recruitments similarly reflected the increasing diversity of the department’s programs. In 1993 the department consolidated its Agricultural Practices, Agricultural Engineering Technology, and Consumer Technology courses into the Applied Biological Systems Technology curriculum offered through the College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences, and added a minor by the same name and other minors in Geographic Information Systems and Precision Agriculture.  Due to the long history of work on energy, in 2012 the department helped organize and took responsibility for administering minor programs in the College of Engineering in Energy Science and Technology, Energy Efficiency, and Energy Policy.   To aid in planning and operations, the department established a Board of Advisors comprised of representatives from a range of industry and government organizations who provide primary consultation and guidance on curricula, internships, and other professional aspects of student training to ensure career success.   The department programs are now structured along three primary lines of excellence in biotechnology engineering, agricultural and natural resources engineering, and food engineering.

From the beginning, the department maintained and continues to maintain extensive fabrication facilities in support of its research and education programs.  The department also developed and administers several special facilities providing critical support within the areas of excellence.  Led by then department chair David J. Hills, in 2001 the department completed the Joe A. Heidrick, Sr. Western Center for Agricultural Equipment.  Dedicated in 2005, the center was built through donations from the Heidrick family and others and was named in honor of the longtime Yolo County farmer and agricultural equipment innovator. The center supports research, education, outreach and industry training in machine systems, automation and robotics, and farm safety and ergonomics.  Courses in Applied Biological Systems Technology are also taught at the center and on the adjacent lands to provide practice in agricultural equipment operations and maintenance, continuing a hundred year tradition in practical student training and education.  The department also administers the Fish Conservation and Culture Laboratory at Byron, California.  This laboratory now maintains the refuge population of the endangered Delta smelt, a species that has played a significant role in state water policy.

As the department looks back over a century of accomplishment, we also look forward to continuing to train the coming generations of biological and agricultural engineers and to discovering and developing innovative solutions to the critical needs and challenges that are now before us and those that are sure to emerge over the coming century.


References and Further Reading

  1. S. Library of Congress. 2015. [accessed 13 July 2015].
  2. Scheuring, A.F. 1993. Growing a world class institution.  California Agriculture 47(4):27-32.  Available from [accessed 13 July 2015]
  3. Akesson, N.B., S.A. Hart, R.E. Garrett, J.B. Dobie and R.G. Curley. 2001. Agricultural Engineering at the University of California, Davis with biographies of retirees and past employees.  Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering, University of California, Davis, California.
  4. Hunt, T.F. Report of the College of Agriculture and the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of California from July 1, 1913, to June 30, 1914. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  5. Smith-Lever Act.   Available from [accessed 13 July 2015].
  6. Hunt, T.F. Report of the College of Agriculture and the Agricultural Experiment Station of the University of California from July 1, 1914, to June 30, 1915. University of California Press, Berkeley.
  7. Bainer, R. with A.I. Dickman.   The engineering of abundance.   Regents of the University of California, Oakland, California.
  8. Long, J.D.   Adobe construction. Bulletin 472, University of California Printing Office, Berkeley, California.
  9. Barger, E.L., W.M. Carleton, E.G. McKibben and R. Bainer.   Tractors and their power units, 1st Edition. John Wiley & Sons, New York (4th Edition as Liljedahl, J.B., P.K. Turnquist, D.W. Smith and M. Hoki, 1989).
  10. Bainer, R., R.A. Kepner and E.L. Barger.   Principles of farm machinery, 1st Edition.  John Wiley & Sons, New York (3rd Edition as Kepner, Bainer, and Barger, 2005).
  11. Henderson, S.M. and R.L. Perry.   Agricultural process engineering, 1st Edition.  John Wiley & Sons, New York (4th Edition as Principles of process engineering by Henderson, Perry, and J.H. Young, 1997).
  12. Neubauer, L. and H.B. Walker.   Farm building design.  Prentice-Hall, Englewood Cliffs, New Jersey.
  13. Akesson, N.B. and W.E. Yates.   The use of aircraft in agriculture.  UN FAO Agricultural Development Paper (Book 94).
  14. Harper, J. C. 1976. Elements of food engineering, 1st  AVI Publishing Co., Westport, Connecticut (2nd Edition by E.L. Watson and J.C. Harper, 1988, Van Nostrand Reinhold, New York).
  15. Singh, R.P. and D.R. Heldman. Introduction to food engineering, 5th 2014. Academic Press, Elsevier, London. (1st Ed. 1984, 2nd Ed. 1993, 3rd Ed. 2001, 4th Ed. 2009).
  16. Hall, C.W. and W.C. Olsen.   The literature of agricultural engineering.  Cornell University Press, Ithaca, New York.
  17. Martin, P.L. and A.L. Olmstead.   The agricultural mechanization controversy.  Science 227(4687):601-606, February 8.
  18. Brandon, K. 2005. How to pick an orange?  Los Angeles Times, January 2.



Chairs of the Department:

  Service Dates  
1. 1915-1919 John B. Davidson
2. 1919-1927 Leonard J. Fletcher
3. 1927-1928 Edward J. Stirniman (acting)
4. 1928-1947 Harry B. Walker
5. 1947-1961 Roy Bainer
6. 1961-1963 Clarence F. Kelly
7. 1963-1968 Coby Lorenzen
8. 1968-1973 John R. Goss
9. 1973-1976 Robert B. Fridley
10. 1977-1986 Roger E. Garrett
11. 1986-1991 Henry E. Studer
12. 1991-2001 David J. Hills
13. 2001-2006 Bruce R. Hartsough
14. 2006-2010 Michael J. Delwiche
15. 2010-2014 Raul H. Piedrahita
16. 2014- Bryan M. Jenkins





Department Members Elected President of the ASAE/ASABE

  Service Dates  
1. 1908 John B. Davidson*
2. 1931-1932 Leonard J. Fletcher
3. 1942-1943 Harry B. Walker
4. 1945-1946 J. Dewey Long
5. 1956-1957 Roy Bainer
6. 1958-1959 Eugene G. McKibben*
7. 1962-1963 Arthur W. Farrall*
8. 1966-1967 Orval C. French*
9. 1972-1973 Clarence F. Kelly
10. 1997-1998 Robert B. Fridley


                                        *not at UC Davis at the time of election.


Department Members Elected to the National Academy of Engineering

  Election Date  
1. 1965 Roy Bainer
2. 1968 Clarence F. Kelly
3. 1985 Robert B. Fridley
4. 2005 William J. Chancellor
5. 2008 R. Paul Singh




Major ASAE/ASABE Awards to Departmentally Affiliated Recipients

Date Awardee
Cyrus Hall McCormick-Jerome Increase Case Gold Medal
1933 John B. Davidson
1944 Leonard J. Fletcher
1948 Roy Bainer
1949 Eugene G. McKibben
1960 Fred A. Brooks
1963 Clarence F. Kelly
1975 Orval C. French
1981 Coby Lorenzen, Jr.
2015 D. Ken Giles
John Deere Gold Medal
1939 Harry B. Walker
2004 William J. Chancellor
2013 Shrinivasa K. Upadhyaya
Massey-Ferguson Educational Gold Medal
1977 S. Milton Henderson
1988 Michael O’Brien
2013 R. Paul Singh
Henry Giese Structures and Environment Award
1959 Theodore E. Bond
1984 Loren W. Neubauer
1994 Louis D. Albright
ADS/Hancor Soil and Water Engineering Award
1969 James N. Luthin
2013 Wesley W. Wallender
G.B. Gunlogson Countryside Engineering Award
1985 James A. Moore
Kishida International Award
1984 William J. Chancellor
2007 R. Paul Singh
A.W. Farrall Young Educator Award
1986 R. Paul Singh
2005 Jean S. VanderGheynst
New Holland Young Researcher Award
1972 Robert B. Fridley
1990 David E. Brune
2003 Ruihong Zhang
Rain Bird Engineering Concept of the Year Award
1976 Robert B. Fridley
1982 Awatif E. Hassan
1999 Graeme W. Henderson and D. Ken Giles
Award for the Advancement of Surface Irrigation
2001 Theodor S. Strelkoff
International Food Engineering Award
1972 Arthur W. Farrall
1997 R. Paul Singh

Major IFT Awards to Departmentally Affiliated Recipients

Date Awardee
Nicholas Appert Award in food technology
2010 R. Paul Singh
Bor S. Luh International Award
1988 R. Paul Singh
Samuel Cate Prescott Award for research
1982 R. Paul Singh
1991 Michael J. McCarthy
1996 Kathryn L. McCarthy
2013 Nitin Nitin