Graduate student combines philosophy, science and economics to study agricultural development

Jelliffe, third from left, works with Senegalese faculty members (left to right) Sadibou Sow,, Sacoura Diop and Ibrahima Ndiaye.
Jelliffe, third from left, works with Senegalese faculty members (left to right) Sadibou Sow,, Sacoura Diop and Ibrahima Ndiaye.

Jeremy Jelliffe is a PhD student studying agricultural economics and development in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE). He investigates the economics of farming, the cost of agricultural products and farmers’ adoption of new technologies in the context of international development. Jelliffe has studied wine grape and milk production in Connecticut, investigated how farmers in Sub-Saharan Africa use drought- and disease-resistant seeds and trained university faculty from Senegal in measuring the impacts of development projects.

Throughout his education at UConn, Jelliffe has worn many academic hats. In 2009, he earned a BA in philosophy with a minor in religious studies and BS in environmental science, concentrating in chemistry. An ARE course titled Valuing the Environment, which Jellife took his senior year, encouraged him to pursue an MS in the field, which he completed in 2012. He says the course combined technical aspects like environmental science, chemistry and natural resource management, and one of his main interests in philosophy: valuation. Most of all, it was the course’s focus on people that most enticed Jelliffe into the study of economics.

Much of Jelliffe’s MS and early PhD work focused on agricultural economics in Connecticut. Jelliffe’s master’s thesis analyzed state wine grape production, which Jelliffe says “was really a sort of trial by fire into the world of agricultural production economics.” His work involved interviewing Connecticut vineyard and winery owners to analyze the production costs and prices paid for wine grapes within the state.

In 2012, Jelliffe worked with a team from the department’s Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy to determine the statewide cost of production (COP) for milk, which is an average value based on data from Connecticut dairy farmers. Under Connecticut law, when milk prices drop below the estimated average COP, the state provides payments to state dairy farmers to make up the difference and cover their costs. But before 2012, there was no estimate for a Connecticut-specific COP, so the law instead used a USDA estimate for dairy production in the Northeast. Jelliffe and others determined a COP specific to Connecticut dairy farmers, allowing for more efficient implementation of the state policy.

Now, Jelliffe is turning his attention internationally, where he studies the agricultural development of “small-holder farmers who are using very rudimentary [techniques] or have limited access to inputs, such as fertilizer.” Jelliffe says that his research explores constraints to technology adoption, investigating whether people who gain knowledge and access to technologies will end up adopting them.

Boris Bravo-Ureta (top row, second from left) and Jeremy Jelliffe (middle row, far right) pose with Senegalese faculty members and other affiliates of USAID ERA.

One of Jelliffe’s primary research interests is agricultural impact evaluation, which studies how interventions, projects or policies affect agricultural development. In the agricultural world, there are many programs that supply new varieties of seeds or provide education to farmers. Jelliffe assesses the effects of these programs in the context of development among subsistence-level farmers. For example, if a program disseminates maize seeds to a certain group, “have their yields of maize increased? Have they produced more corn in the last five years since they received the education programs … or new seeds? Or have they not? What happened to people who didn’t receive [programs or seeds]?”

Jelliffe says his current work in impact evaluation analyzes the adoption of high-yielding drought- and disease-resistant seed varieties by groundnut [peanut] producers in Uganda. In 2004, an NGO called AT Uganda launched a program that disseminated such groundnut seeds, a staple crop in many countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, to farmers in eastern Uganda. In 2013, Jelliffe and others found that individuals who received the training and were part of the program ended up planting a larger proportion of improved varieties in their counterparts, with a 20 percent difference from the control. Jelliffe says this is an impressive marker of the sustainability of the project completed nearly ten years earlier.

This past May, Jelliffe and his advisor, Professor Boris Bravo-Ureta, conducted a workshop on impact evaluation for faculty from several universities in Senegal and other affiliates of USAID Education and Research in Agriculture (ERA). Bravo-Ureta and Jelliffe provided training to the Senegalese faculty on important concepts for impact evaluation of agricultural projects, the application of statistical methods to real world data and the logic behind the selecting between alternative methodologies.

This kind of technical education is important, because impact evaluation is expected to answer a difficult epistemological question: How can causality be identified? In other words, do we know that a certain program produced certain effects? Jelliffe says that causality is hard to determine, especially because agricultural programs are likely to produce spillover effects beyond the project to non-participants: People are likely to buy and sell different seeds at the market, neighbors are likely to share information, etc.

But Jelliffe also has a different perspective, which harkens back to his study of philosophy. He says that while spillover can present a difficulty to evaluation and statistical bias, it can also accelerate valuable agricultural development for communities in need. At the end of the day, Jelliffe believes that “what we’re trying to get at here is, how can we perform research and studies that get information to policymakers and individuals who can implement additional projects with the best [most accurate] information possible.”

Jelliffe says he isn’t certain where he wants to apply his knowledge and skills just yet. He thinks about working for an extension agency to conduct outreach work with farmers, focusing on the economics of regional agricultural production. He’s considering a postdoctoral position to continue working on impact evaluation in Sub-Saharan Africa. He also thinks that his  service on the University’s Board of Trustees might prepare him for an administrative role, helping to facilitate researchers with their work. In any case, Jelliffe knows that his work in agricultural and resource economics is far from over.

By Michael Clausen