Why agricultural economics?

Bella the cow keeps a watchful eye on the sheep at Pennine Camphill Community in Wakefield, UK

Bella the cow keeps a watchful eye on the sheep at Pennine Camphill Community in Wakefield, UK

My degree is in Agricultural Economics, but my work reaches far outside the bounds of agriculture and natural resources. If you are on this site, it’s likely you are interested in hiring me. But you may have a few questions about my background. In particular, why am I an ag economist? Why does an ag economist do something unrelated to agriculture? Will he still be able to teach ag econ undergrads and work with extension services? Why should I hire someone with a background in agricultural economics if we don’t do agriculture here?

I hope that this page provides some context to address these important questions. To begin with, you should know that I entered agricultural economics from an undergraduate degree in accounting, after I spent several years working as a biodynamic farmer at a small community for young adults with special needs in the United Kingdom. My time as a farmer there created an interest in how our land is used and how the design and structure of communities impact social outcomes. As I was considering what to do after my undergraduate degree finished, an agricultural economics program seemed like a natural next step to consider these questions.

When I got to my agricultural economics masters program, I discovered a very diverse field with a strong background in applied empirics, directed towards solving real-world problems. Agricultural economics has a long tradition of taking the mathematical models of theoretical economics and econometrics and applying them to real, practical problems of policy and production. In his presidential address to the American Economic Association in 1970, Wassily Leontief points to Agricultural Economics as a paragon of theoretical and empirical balance in the field. In that speech he contrasts the high academic acclaim that economics had at the time with the fear that much of its output lacked practical impact. Agricultural economics, on the other hand, had mastered this balance out of a necessity, given its close focus to a real-world sector that craved practical results:

An exceptional example of a healthy balance between theoretical and empirical analysis and of the readiness of professional economists to cooperate with experts in the neighboring disciplines is offered by Agricultural Economics as it developed in this country over the last fifty years.… [A]gricultural economists demonstrated the effectiveness of a systematic combination of theoretical approach with detailed factual analysis. They also were the first among economists to make use of the advanced methods of mathematical statistics. However, in their hands, statistical inference became a complement to, not a substitute for, empirical research.

Over time, I realized that the toolkit of the agricultural economist was increasingly in synch with the toolkit of the applied microeconomist. I developed my research interests to push at the boundaries of our department, bringing the historical tradition of combining theoretical modeling and quantitative empirical analysis of agricultural economics to bear on a diverse set of questions of significant practical consequence: the public and private organization of social services and the economic incentives of the criminal justice system. At the same time, I kept a close connection to the issues that brought me here in the first place: the use of our land and the structure of our farming communities. I have analyzed US Farm Bills to identify policy kinks for use in difference-in-difference and regression discontinuity design analysis, but I am also comfortable and familiar with a wider range of policy environments. In other words: I come with the ability to teach and conduct research in the field of agricultural economics, but also with the basic toolkit and mindset of an applied microeconomist working in the broader fields of public economics and law and economics.

My dissertation is meant to be a celebration of the flexibility and diversity of agricultural economics as a field. While my background has involved significant coursework in land use, farm systems, and agricultural economics, and while I have taught classes in agribusiness, I have a broad view of what it means to be an applied and agricultural economist. I am capable of teaching and researching in the domains of agricultural production, agribusiness, and agricultural policy, but it is my goal to show that the healthy balance Leontief saw in agricultural economics back in 1970 is alive and well in the broader field of applied microeconomics today.