Q&A by Olga Kuchment, Texas A&M AgriLife Communications
Staying in your hometown can help you build a national reputation in your professional field — at least if you’re William Brock Faulkner, a fifth-generation Brazos County resident and a prominent young agricultural engineer.
A graduate of Bryan High School, Faulkner received his bachelor’s, master’s and doctorate from the Department of Biological and Agricultural Engineering at Texas A&M University. Immediately after he graduated in 2008 the department hired him on as faculty.
Faulkner’s research deals with two overlapping topics: cotton processing and air quality. Texas cotton farmers have used his results to make critical choices about their harvesting methods. Another of his projects helped change emission guidelines for almond harvesting operations in California.
Faulkner was selected Young Engineer of the Year in 2009 by the Texas Section of the American Society of Agricultural and Biological Engineers. In 2012, he was awarded the Dean’s Early Career Research Award from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Since becoming a faculty member, he has secured over $3.1 million in research funding.
“Dr. Faulkner is clearly one of the most impressive young engineers I have worked with,” writes Edward M. Barnes, Ph.D., director for agricultural and environmental research at Cotton Incorporated, a research and marketing company funded by U.S. cotton growers.
Q: How did you end up in biological and agricultural engineering?
A: My family ranched, so I was always interested in agriculture. And I was pretty good at math and science in high school. I took the introductory course to agricultural engineering and a couple things happened.
One, I realized the breadth of issues that agricultural engineers deal with, and two, by the time I finished that course, there were three professors in my department who knew my name, knew where I was from, and that definitely made me feel at home.
And when I got into our processing course that I now teach, I loved it. I started looking at processing and at air quality and got really excited about that, and that’s what I do now.
Q: For those of us who aren’t engineers, what exactly is “processing”?
A: We produce a lot of agricultural commodities in this country. How do you harvest it, how do you transport it, how do you store it, how do you use it — everything from ginning cotton more efficiently to storing grain so it maintains its quality for milling or oil extraction—that’s processing. How do we take our raw commodities and get them to our end product with the quality and quantity that is profitable for everybody along the supply chain.
Q: Any major questions in your field you’d like to tackle?
A: We have to bring good science to bear on policy. That’s such an evolving set of issues that I think there will always be exciting things for us to address. I think we can make great inroads into ensuring a safe and healthy environment and still allow inventive folks to pursue profitable enterprises.
The other thing—I think there’s tremendous opportunity to take the things we’ve learned in this country and put them to work in developing areas.
We’ve got a growing population and we’re going to have to feed and clothe it. I’ll make no bones about it, I’m going to support American agriculture first. But there are things we can do to help developing countries that are not going to put us at a competitive disadvantage in the United States.
Q: What are some ways we can help developing countries?
A: Sergio Capareda [Ph.D., associate professor of biological and agricultural engineering] is from the Philippines. He’s done some great work helping develop rural energy sources for the Philippines.
I did some work to help folks in Central Asia figure out what they can do to get better-looking cattle. Kazakhstan is never going to compete with the United States for milk production, so I think we can help them with that development work.
Q: What do you tell students interested in agricultural and biological engineering?
A: This is a fun place to be. Forbes Magazine has said that agricultural engineering is going to be one of the most in-demand professions as we go forward. We’re trying to feed a growing population with limited resources. We’re trying to provide clothes; we’re trying to provide fuel. There are tons of opportunities out there.
Our Agricultural Systems Management curriculum is another phenomenal program, for students that enjoy agriculture and enjoy business and want to put those together. Several of our Ag Systems Management grads are part of the Aggie 100, the 100 fastest-growing Aggie-owned businesses. They get the foundation for business and management and building good relationships here.
Q: You have a long history with Texas A&M. What is so special about our university?
A: On my dad’s side we’re third-generation Aggies. On my mom’s side, the earliest graduate that we can find graduated from A&M in 1895. My brother and I had always wanted to come here. I managed to stay around.
When I got my Ph.D., I interviewed other places. But I loved doing air quality stuff and loved working with the cotton industry. And this was the only place I could do both. I was very fortunate to have support from people I had worked with, wanting me to stay.
The other side was that my grandfather, who ran our ranch, was not doing well and we wanted to stay around.
I love working with students and I love the research we are doing, so there’s every reason to stay.
Q: What does your family ranch?
A: I run our place. We raise pasture-fed beef and sell it directly to consumers. Our place is about 12 miles outside town in Brazos County. We raise Limousin and Beefmaster cattle and finish them on grass, get them custom-processed down in Navasota and deliver meat to folks. I run a cow-calf operation all the way through to when they are ready to be eaten.
Q: How do you find the time?
A: I’m a very busy person and very disciplined at time management. But my kids love it out at the ranch. My wife and I are trying to build a house out there. It’s something that our family enjoys doing together. It’s work, but it’s fun for us, too.