ProAg Engineering Inc.

Agricultural engineering expertise that is at home on the farm
Written by: 
Matt Dodge
Produced by: 
Drew Taylor

Serving the Midwest from its headquarters in Jackson, Minnesota, ProAg Engineering Inc. is a premier agricultural engineering firm specializing in site development and permitting.

In addition to offering a full suite of planning and development expertise, the company designs dairy, swine and poultry facilities, cattle feed lots and farmland drainage systems as well as offering natural resource engineering, stormwater pollution prevention and planning, topographic GPS surveying and AutoCAD drafting.

While the company was founded in 2009, the roots of ProAg trace back to founder Nic Rowe’s childhood on a Jackson, Minnesota, swine farrow-to-finish operation.

ProAg Engineering Inc.

“I grew up with a livestock background, which I think is important,” says Rowe. “I know the hassles and having struggled with them myself, it’s easy to connect with both agricultural producers and contractors. My background in livestock also lets me see a common-sense approach to projects, and I think that’s been a key to my businesses’ success,” he says.

After graduating from South Dakota State University with a degree in Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering, Rowe cut his teeth at a small civil engineering consulting firm in Iowa, where an ever-increasing focus on agriculture and livestock operations helped him hone a niche.

“There was a big push from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) and the states in the early 2000s for more regulation and permitting for new and expanding livestock operations throughout the country, especially in Iowa and Minnesota,” he says. “That’s when I started doing more and more of that type of work and became the face of the Ag engineering division in that company.”

As Rowe’s former employers became more involved in agriculture and livestock operations, he rounded out his qualifications by earning his professional engineer (P.E.) certification. Armed with brand-new bona fides and a couple of years of real-world experience, Rowe struck out on his own and established ProAg seven years ago.

“When I graduated there were not many people specializing in that area. There were some civil engineers who did some, but my background, education and experience really allowed me to lead the market,” Rowe says.

That background and experience go beyond simply knowing what method or process to use on a certain project; having grown up in the industry, Rowe is able to communicate with customers more effectively than some of his competitors who might have never set foot on a farm.

“I know what they’re up against and I can provide answers and communicate common-sense solutions to them, which they really appreciate,” Rowe says. “Most engineers will go see a producer wearing a suit and tie, but when I stop by I have my rubber boots on and am not afraid to get manure anywhere and everywhere to get a whole view of their facility.”

Rowe’s ability to develop an understanding with customers extends beyond the agricultural industry and into ProAg’s work in the construction market. “These same qualities have benefited us in the construction world; they appreciate common-sense solutions and people who will work with them instead of just telling them what is going to work,” he says.

Helping clients navigate regulatory hurdles

ProAg has experienced early success thanks to increased government regulations that make well-planned, compliant site design and development more important than ever. “The Clean Water Act has driven all of these regulations and permitting, but that’s now also affecting work in the drainage sector; first they went after livestock operations, now it seems like they’re going after farm drainage,” says Rowe.

Different states have employed drastically different levels of enforcement when it comes to the Clean Water Act, many of ProAg’s clients through Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, South Dakota and Nebraska have been affected. While compliance is a common concern for ProAg’s customers, Rowe says that just as often they are turning to the company to help improve their own bottom line.

“We have a lot of clientele who don’t just come to us to keep them out of trouble; they’re coming to us because our designs save them money in the long run,” Rowe says. “Too often producers build something and then later end up regretting it, but it’s more expensive to tear it up than it is for us to have a plan on paper and analyze it before construction.”

As an independent agricultural engineering firm, ProAg focuses solely on site development and permitting, leaving contractors and specialty trades to flesh out the finer details. “We’re more about helping producers find the site and complete the design, layout and permitting. We get involved in calculating bid quantities and choosing contractors on the construction planning side, and then spend a lot of time on-site during the construction phase to help stake things out. After it’s done we’re there inspecting and certifying that it was built according to the permit so they can occupy and use it,” Rowe says.

ProAg recently completed such a project at Red Rock Jerseys, a large, 6,000-head dairy operation in northwest Iowa. “There are not a lot of dairies that large and this project required us to move over 500,000 yards of dirt. We installed a gravity drain so it operates off just one pump, which is kind of unique,” he says.

There is no typical agricultural engineering project and the pure scope of work provides an interesting challenge for ProAg. From 100-head dairies to 40,000-head feed lots, Rowe says it’s these very challenges that keep him so interested in the field. “What I love about my job is every site is different. They all have their different characteristics that make them challenging, interesting and unique,” he says.

Savings through improved design

As an engineering consulting firm, ProAg must rely on a trusted team of subcontractors to help make designs a reality. Rowe points to ProAg’s work with Automated Waste Systems, a liquid and dry manure specialist with operations in Iowa and South Dakota, as an example of a trusted subcontractor. “I have worked with them a lot on the manure handling side of things. I design a lot where I want things to be and they provide the equipment to the pumps, pipes and electrical equipment to make it happen,” he says.

Coming from an agriculture background himself, Rowe is always mindful of giving his customers the most bang for the buck, ensuring that producers of all sizes can stay competitive in an increasingly consolidated industry. This might involve adopting the newest money-saving technologies and methods or having frank preconstruction conversations with clients to make sure ProAg is delivering just want they want and nothing more.

“We’re very efficient and we keep our costs down, but in some of the larger engineering firms it seems like there is a lot of overkill and producers and contractors see through that very quickly,” Rowe says. “A lot of the smaller operations don’t have the money to make a mistake, so I have to make sure what I’m doing is going to save them money and labor and not cause a problem; I like to ask what their budget is right away and give them options, but we won’t make any decisions until they’ve weighed the benefits and costs of each option.”

Rowe doesn’t have any plans to drastically scale up ProAg, though he would like to see the company expand its geographical footprint to encompass a wider area. “I’m always looking to do something new that leads to more work,” he says. “There are always new challenges that the livestock industry needs to meet from a regulations standpoint.”

A deep-rooted background in agriculture has given Rowe and ProAg Engineering Inc. the experience necessary to thrive as one of the Midwest’s leading agricultural engineering firm in the ever-changing, increasingly regulated industry.

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