Tapping into UNL’s water programs

Burdette Barker

Burdette Barker
Ph.D. student, Biological Engineering
Fruit Heights, Utah
Advisors: Drs. Derek Heeren and Christopher Neale
Graduated: May 2017

When it comes to water programs, UNL floats to the top.

That’s what nontraditional student Burdette Barker discovered when he decided to study irrigation management for his doctoral degree and compared universities across the nation.

“My shortlist had always included schools with a legacy in irrigation,” he says. “But when I really started looking at who was at those schools—the faculty they had and what was going on—UNL floated to the top pretty quickly as being probably the only school that was still really putting a lot of investment in irrigation.”

Having grown up near the Wasatch Range in Utah, earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Utah State, and then worked three years in Oregon in irrigation engineering, Barker initially resisted the idea of moving his wife and child to Nebraska.

“I was a mountain boy,” Barker says. He couldn’t picture himself on the plains, but the more he looked at irrigation programs, the clearer it became that Nebraska, and specifically UNL, was where he needed to be. “Now, as I look at options, it’s kind of a no-brainer. I would choose Nebraska again because there’s not a lot of good competition.”

Besides having the largest amount of irrigated land of any state, Nebraska is home to the four largest center pivot manufacturers in the United States. UNL has capitalized on its prime location by maintaining more full-time irrigation faculty members than any other U.S. university. The entire state serves as a laboratory for UNL students.

“If someone is really interested in irrigation and trying to get a well-rounded experience, you have eastern Nebraska where irrigation is very much supplemental most years, but you go over to western Nebraska and it’s not the same story,” Barker says, explaining that western Nebraska is dry like western states where irrigation is mandatory to grow crops. “So somebody could come here and potentially get exposed to a wide variety of irrigation situations if they so desired,” he says.

In his UNL research, Barker and his advisors, assistant professor Derek Heeren and professor Christopher Neale, are developing prescriptions maps to be used in variable rate irrigation. The idea behind variable rate irrigation is that different parts of the field need different amounts of water because of the soil, crop, or land features. Prescription maps are intended to show how much water should be delivered to various parts of a field and, thus, reduce pumping and energy costs.

Recently, Barker was one of only three UNL students awarded a 2016-17 presidential graduate fellowship in recognition of high scholastic performance and personal accomplishment. He expects to graduate in May 2017 and hopes to gain an irrigation faculty position at a similar land grant university.

“Nebraska is good and people in Nebraska are great,” he says. “A mountain boy can fit in here in the plains.”

— Ronica Stromberg, Biological Systems Engineering Department