September 13, 2019
The Swette Center for Sustainable Food Systems focuses on innovative ideas and solutions to the many challenges of current food systems. In this series, we’re sitting down with the Swette Center affiliated faculty to catch up on food systems, innovation and what makes a good meal. See the rest of the series on our Food Systems Profiles page.
Question: How did you get interested in food systems issues?
Answer: I grew up in a rural community in Central California. I became very involved in 4-H, and I was a part of that from age nine to 18. I did vegetable gardening, a lot of leadership activities, and I even showed hogs — I had two grand champion hogs at my local fair.
I had no idea what I wanted to major in when I got to college, but some of my 4-H leaders convinced me to major in agribusiness because there were scholarships available. I wasn’t sure, but I decided to give it a try. So I took some courses and really took a liking to it right away, largely due to the influence of the professors that I had.
And then I got very interested in economics, and when I got closer to graduation I started thinking ‘maybe I want to be a professor.’ As an undergraduate, I had a professor that introduced me to futures and options markets, so when I started a Masters degree in agricultural economics I became very interested in how to use futures and options markets for managing risk in agriculture. And that interest continued into my Ph.D work.
Q: Share a glimpse of your current research and how it applies to food systems transformation.
A: I’m always interested in pricing and information. What’s interesting right now with respect to futures and options markets is how do we price specialty and organic grains? We don’t really know. We have the traditional commodity futures markets which are basically information markets. But there’s not a lot of information in those specialty markets and there’s low correlation with the typical commodity markets. So how do farmers manage price risk of specialty grains, and do our typical risk management tools need to be adapted differently.
These are unique markets with unique pricing characteristics and not a lot of information. These markets have tremendous potential to provide diversification for farmers, so for example if you’re a conventional corn grower in the Midwest, you can convert some of your acreage to organic and that might get you a higher and more stable price. But how do you convince farmers to convert a portion of their acreage to organic given the costs of doing so? It’s an interesting risk management and agribusiness finance question.
Q: What’s an innovation in the food systems world that you’re excited about?
A: How artificial intelligence and data analytics can play a role in agriculture. How can we best harness these innovations? Multidisciplinary approaches to these topics are going to be really important.
Q: What’s your favorite weeknight meal?
A: Something with lots of leafy greens. My favorite thing is my wife’s sauteed brussel sprouts with pecans. It’s hearty, healthy, and it tastes really good. So that and a lean protein. Anytime that we prep, and cook, and sit together is a good night.