Cara Pesek, August 9, 2023
Yoder looks back on career as engineer and leader
Growing up, Ron Yoder never knew an engineer.
He did know that he liked to learn how things worked. He had heard that engineers make a good living. And so Yoder, who in school did well in math and science, thought that a successful career in engineering might someday allow him to buy some land and pursue a career in agriculture. So when he enrolled at Drexel University in Philadelphia, he majored in engineering, not completely sure where it might take him.
Ultimately, Yoder found his way back to agriculture, but not in the way he imagined. After a stint in civil engineering and earning his master’s and doctoral degrees agricultural engineering, Yoder became a professor of biological systems engineering, eventually leading the biological systems engineering departments at the University of Tennessee and the University of Nebraska–Lincoln. In 2011, he became the senior associate vice chancellor of UNL’s Institute of Agriculture and Natural Resources, a position he has held since.
Yoder will retire in September after 19 years at Nebraska. A reception will be held from 2-4 p.m. Aug. 11 at the Nebraska East Union Great Plains Room.
Yoder grew up in central Pennsylvania, on a small dairy farm, where he was first exposed to agriculture. He was the first person in his family to attend high school, and when he was accepted into Drexel University, he also became the first to attend college.
Through Drexel’s cooperative education program, he worked for the state department of environmental resources doing survey work and flood studies. In school, he focused on engineering geology and water resources, because he liked the professors who taught those classes.
“There was no planning,” he said. “It was just one year at a time.”
For Yoder, the approach worked. His engineering geology and water resources instructors helped him get the most out of his education. His co-op position let him test his skills through meaningful work, including a broad range of water resources engineering projects.
One of his professors suggested he attend graduate school at Clemson University for a master’s degree, and he did. After that, he accepted a position at the University of Wyoming as the Experiment Station engineer. In this position, he traveled the state, visiting research sites and overseeing the construction of new research facilities. After five years, he took a position with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Grand Junction, Colorado, and began a doctoral program in agricultural engineering through Colorado State University.
Yoder continued to focus on water, specifically irrigation and water use. After completing his Ph.D., he moved to Prosser, Washington. The region around Prosser is extremely dry, receiving around six inches of rain each year, and the farmers in the area who produce potatoes, corn, alfalfa, and a wide range of fruit and specialty crops, such as hops and mint, rely heavily on irrigation. Yoder focused his work on nitrate management and water quality. He particularly enjoyed the chance to be out in the field, often working directly with farmers.
From there, Yoder accepted a faculty position at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville with the Department of Agricultural Engineering, (now Biosystems Engineering and Soil Science). He began as an assistant professor, teaching classes and conducting research in water quality and pesticide movement in soil. He worked his way through the ranks, eventually becoming department head, a position he held for four years.
In 2004, he moved to Nebraska to become the head of the Department of Biological Systems Engineering at UNL.
In this role, he drew on skills and knowledge he had developed throughout his career, which by this point were varied. He continued to work on issues related to water resources. He made improvements to the BSE facilities, notably, the Tractor Test Lab track. In 2011, when he became the senior associate vice chancellor, he began to work with teams on improvements to facilities on East Campus, including major renovations of the Nebraska East Union and the Dinsdale Family Learning Commons, as well as improvements to research sites across the state. In 2016, he served as interim NU vice president and IANR vice chancellor, after then-IANR vice chancellor Ronnie Green was named chancellor.
Over the years, he also helped engineer different teams, institutes and other entities throughout IANR, including the Daugherty Water for Food Global Institute, the Clayton Yeutter Institute of International Trade and Finance, the Nebraska Manufacturing Extension Partnership, and the Water and Integrated Cropping Systems Hub. He also worked with IANR deans, department heads, unit leaders and center directors to ensure that new hires were made strategically and strengthened the teaching, research and extension missions of IANR.
“I get the most satisfaction out of putting the pieces together so that the whole is more than the sum of the pieces,” he said.
He has accomplished that, said NU Vice President and Harlan Vice Chancellor for IANR Mike Boehm.
“Ron has been a steady, forward-thinking, and incredibly productive leader during his nearly two decades with the University of Nebraska–Lincoln,” Boehm said. “Over and over, he has shown an incredible ability to anticipate future needs of IANR, UNL and Nebraska, and to pull together teams to address those needs. Our university and state will benefit from Ron’s leadership well into the future, and I’m grateful to have worked alongside him the past seven years.”
Decades after embarking on a career in engineering in hopes it would allow him to buy some land, Yoder has finally done that. He and his wife, Joan, purchased some pasture land in Tennessee with good fences and a pond.
And while he no longer has plans to embark on a second career in farming, he said, he might run a few cattle.
“I don’t like to be bored,” he said.