Robert von Bernuth
IS no stranger to the Irrigation Association (IA) or the irrigation industry; he’s been around the industry in some way or another for many years. Although retired from university life, the IA made him an offer he couldn’t refuse: a chance to make another contribution to this industry as well as an opportunity to be closer to one of his daughters and grandsons. Von Bernuth recently accepted the position of educational director for the IA.
As an educator, von Bernuth brings with him the knowledge and expertise of academia, but also the experience of the irrigation business.
Born and raised on a farm in southern Colorado, near a little town called Del Norte, von Bernuth was introduced to irrigation at the age of six, gravity irri gating alfalfa fields with a shovel. After finishing high school, he went to Colorado State and graduated with a degree in Agricultural Engineering.
The time was 1969 and the Vietnam War was in full swing. “Uncle Sam was chasing me hard; I had my choice of either being drafted or enlisting in the Navy to fly airplanes,” said von Bernuth. “So I went into the Navy and flew planes.” After five years of active duty, von Bernuth stayed in the reserves for another 21 years.
When von Bernuth left the Navy in 1972, he worked in the nuclear power industry for a while. Rain Bird found him and started him out in field sales, covering Nebraska and Colorado. He then spent two years in the Rain Bird home office in Glendora, California, where he became sales manager for agricultural products. While there, he went back to school to get a Master’s in Business Administration.
He left Rain Bird and formed a consulting firm with Ken Solomon. After a few years, Solomon was offered a position with enough money to lure him away, and the partnership was dissolved. Again, von Bernuth pursued additional education and went on to receive his Ph.D from the University of Nebraska.
It wasn’t long before von Bernuth ended up at the University of Tennessee. This time, he was teaching. He primarily taught irrigation-related courses, irrigation design in the Ag department. He’s been in the university system ever since.
Von Bernuth was offered a position as department head of ag engineering at Michigan State University, in Lansing. The university offered seven majors in that department, and it was becoming unmanageable. He was instrumental in moving courses around and changing the name to the bio-systems engineering program. He took construction management along with the landscape architecture, urban and regional planning, and interior design and formed the school of planning design and construction; he was the founder and became director of the school of planning.
Last January, von Bernuth retired from Michigan State University, after 21 years. For the last two years, he was the assistant dean for the College of Ag and Natural Resources; however, his job was to spearhead the college’s efforts in Dubai. The university has had a presence in Dubai for about two years, and von Bernuth spent a year there. “When the university decided to get out of Dubai, I felt it was time for me to retire,” he said.
They say timing is everything, and in this case it was. The Irrigation Association was looking for someone to direct its educational programs; what better time to find a person of von Bernuth’s ability and experience. The board of directors of the IA feels that it’s important to get back to basics: education. Von Bernuth’s contribution is eagerly awaited; he brings credibility to the job and his credentials are impeccable.
No stranger to the IA, von Bernuth says, “I’ve been involved with the IA since the ’80s, and worked with the Irrigation Association Educational Foundation for about six or eight years, back then.”
What a great match for the IA.
They are based in Virginia, outside of Washington, D.C. On accepting the position with the IA, von Bernuth recently moved to Virginia; his wife Judy will follow shortly, after selling their home in Michigan.
One of their daughters, an engineer, lives in Boston, Massachusetts; the other is a traffic engineer for the city of Charlottesville, Virginia, and he has two grandsons. “You can understand the attraction of our moving to Virginia,” he says.
When asked what he envisions his job to be, von Bernuth responded, “I think the primary job, if I can summarize it in a sentence or two, would be to get the right educational materials of the right quality. By right, I mean addressing the markets as we should be. And once we get the right kinds of materials and the right quality, then it comes down to the delivery.”
“There are multiple modes of delivery, most of which we’ve not had a chance to explore very much. We’re still an old face-to-face delivery operation,” says von Bernuth.
“We know, in this modern age, that there are lots of different ways to do it. So, it’s my responsibility to get the materials up to speed and get the delivery appropriate for today.”
Von Bernuth fell in love with Knoxville, Tennessee, while he was teaching there. He and his wife have a place on the South River and it is there where they spend their spare time. He collects antique tractors and has accumulated four old trucks and 19 old tractors.
“I did intend to retire, but when this opportunity came up, I felt I really could make a contribution in something that I think I know about,” he says. “It’s a contribution made through 30 years of higher education. You get motivated to change people’s life experiences because of what you can impart to them and I really think there is a lot of opportunity to improve the education in the irrigation industry. I think I have the tools and experience to do it.”
Growing up using irrigation on the farm, teaching at major universities about irrigation, and working in the industry makes him well suited for the job. Combining teaching and practicality, we too feel that von Bernuth not only has the tools to do the job, he has the passion as well.