Growing up on a farm in small town Iowa with an interest in science and farming, alumnus Bill Wilcke, found a home away from home at Iowa State, where he was able to combine his passions in the agricultural engineering program. It would inevitably lead him to the forefront of sustainable agriculture development and take him around the world.
Wilcke was born and raised in Battle Creek, Iowa. Growing up with his three siblings, Wilcke became entirely immersed in all aspects of farming, learning how to milk a cow and drive a tractor before he was even school aged. While attending Battle Creek high school, he was introduced to the hard sciences by his physics and chemistry teacher, Mr. Gustad, who took his students on a university tour and sparked Wilcke’s interested in agricultural engineering.
Entering into the agricultural engineering program at Iowa State in 1972, Wilcke became involved in the agricultural engineering club. He also enjoyed serving the Iowa State community as a resident assistant in Sesna House in Larch Hall. Additionally, Wilcke was able to give back to the community by tutoring minority students and answering phone calls for a hotline for students who were experiencing problems.
Upon graduating in 1976, Wilcke continued his education at Iowa State, beginning work toward a master’s degree in agricultural engineering. His research focus at the time involved the study of solar grain drying, and was an area of study he continued when he began working toward a doctorate. In 1985, Wilcke completed his doctorate in agricultural engineering as well, adding a minor in energy systems engineering.
After completing his advanced degrees, Wilcke took a position at Virginia Tech, conducting research and extension programs. While there, he recalls learning about more ‘exotic’ agricultural plants, like mushrooms and forages, and taking his knowledge in agricultural engineering to a new level.
“With my mother’s interest in recycling, gardening, and saving energy and my father’s early adoption of soil conservation methods, I had a great appreciation for conservation from an early age,” recalls Wilcke. “It was at Virginia Tech that I became aware of ‘sustainable agriculture,’ a topic that would play a big role later in my career.”
After four years in Virginia, it was clear to Wilcke that if he wanted to see his family, he was going to have to return to the Midwest. While looking for positions closer to home, Wilcke applied for a faculty position at the University of Minnesota. Joining the faculty at the university in 1989 as an associate professor, he was able to attain full professor status just a few years later.
As agriculture concepts and practices appealed greatly to Wilcke, he was pleased when one of his first projects at the university was coordinating the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP) project. At the time, many farmers were taking a great deal of land out of a CRP conservation set-aside program to plant crops. Wilcke and his team were able to assess which crops would were best suited for implementation after CRP.
“I also had the opportunity to advise graduate students and post doctoral fellows in the area of crop drying and storage,” recalls Wilcke. “I found great satisfaction in seeing these students learn and develop, and it was rewarding to see many of them become faculty members at other institutions.”
In addition, he served as the state coordinator for the federally-funded Sustainable Research and Education Program (SARE), followed by serving on the Administrative Council for the North Central region. Wilcke ultimately became the Regional SARE coordinator, where he oversaw sustainable research and educational activities across 12 states. He was also able to find time to serve on the board of directors for the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, the Minnesota Organic Advisory Tack Force, and the Board of the University of Minnesota’s Regional Partnership for Northwest Minnesota.
As part of his work at the university, Wilcke is proud of his development of WINFANS, a program that aids farmers in the selection of the correct size of drying fan for a specific size of grain bin. Wilcke also created a computer program that calculates that amount of time certain grains should be stored under various conditions before they are considered to have spoiled. All together, these projects allowed farmers to save energy and money while also improving the quality and safety of human food and animal feed.
Traveling has also been a passion for Wilcke, and overtime he found himself on a variety of international excursions.
“On trips to Russia and the Caribbean, I taught and advised agricultural instructors and researchers about crop storage,” he says. “Then on trips to Morocco, Cyprus, Sicily, Croatia, and other places in Western Europe, I took advantage of the chance to observe the differences in the way farming was practiced in various countries. And when visiting Cuba I studied Cuban sustainable farming practices. International travel and study was something that really excited me.”
As a successful engineer, professor, researcher, and philanthropist, Wilcke has seen it all, and has some important advice for students in engineering today.
“Students in biosystems and agricultural engineering should take advantage of the global research opportunities of the field,” explains Wilcke. “Teaching these research practices to the farmers of the world will have the maximum impact. Sustainability is pivotal to our future.”