Reflections on Agricultural and Applied Economics

The annual meetings of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association begin tomorrow night in Chicago, so before I fly to Midway, I thought it would be a good time to talk about the agricultural and applied economics profession as distinct from the economics profession, but also in terms of how it closely resembles economics.

To do so, I thought I should feature a recent Twitter thread by Beatrice Cherrier, a historian of economic thought at the University of Caen in Normandie who is currently looking at the history of agricultural and applied economics. I’ll post Beatrice’s tweets below, interspersed with some of my own comments.

(For a longer version of Beatrice’s Twitter thread, which includes replies by some agricultural and applied economists, see the Storify version of her Twitter thread here.)

It helps that agricultural and applied economics departments were created by a series of laws. The Morrill Act of 1862 used the proceeds of sales of federal lands to create a network of universities (aptly called land-grant universities) whose objective was to generate publicly useful research. Then the Hatch Act of 1887 gave federal funds to land-grant universities to create agricultural experiment stations, which are still in existence to this day.

For instance, a significant fraction of my University of Minnesota salary comes from the agricultural experiment station. In practical terms, this means two things. First, I need to generate research that will contribute to the mission of the agricultural experiment station. Every few years, I have to submit a new research proposal to justify that funding. Second, this is also why I and many others in agricultural economics departments teach considerably less (on average a little over two courses per year) than our counterparts in economics departments (who often teach four courses per year).

It gets worse. Some universities have up to five or six departments with economists on faculty. When I was in grad school, Cornell had economists in at least six units: Applied Econ, Econ, the School of Industrial and Labor Relations, the Johnson School of Management, Nutritional Sciences, and Policy Analysis and Management.

As for that ranking it’s quite interesting; full of surprises for me…

Every department should at some point write down its history. I’m glad my colleagues Ford Runge, Burt Sundquist, and Willard Cochrane (who passed away before my time, but whose name we gave to a series of lectures) did so at some point.

Indeed we aren’t heterodox. There very few (if any, as far as I can tell, but that might just be my ignorance) heterodox economists in agricultural and applied economics departments, probably because there is less funding available for heterodox economics in general, and because grantsmanship is explicitly recognized in most agricultural and applied economics departments as a criterion for tenure and promotion.

The idea that the “empirical turn” is recent is laughable. But then again, one sometimes gets the sense that being willfully ignorant of the work of agricultural and applied economists (when not being outright dismissive of it) is practically a badge of honor for some denizens of economics departments…

Correct. One of my hobby horses is to document how many of the core methods of applied micro (e.g., fixed effects, instrumental variables) were initially developed by agricultural economists.

Here is an interesting quip about “high” theory.

More seriously on the latter, absolutely. I have many stories of that tension to tell.

All of the above, but the institutional-legal foundations of the land-grant network created and maintain agricultural and applied economics departments.

Some agricultural and applied economics departments have changed their mission over the years for sure. Cornell’s applied economics department launched the undergrad business major at Cornell just before I joined as a graduate student, and now the department is becoming part of the new college of business.

At Minnesota, we became an applied economics department (so more of an applied micro department, with labor and health economists) while maintaining a focus on food and agriculture.

It is my belief that agricultural and applied economics department will exist long after we are all dead because agricultural and applied economists answer policy-relevant questions (and this no matter what some would-be arbiters of what is policy-relevant or not would like to believe) that often lie at the core of society’s survival.

Recall that, along with air, water, clothing, and shelter, food is at the foundation of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, and as long as humankind endures, how to ensure that people have access to a stable supply of nutritious, safe food will remain important, no matter whether the Good and the Great in American academia think it’s cool or not. I can think of no better people to answer those and related questions (and often make fundamental methodological contributions to economics and other social sciences) than agricultural and applied economists.

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