Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics: an overview

Rigoberto Lopez
Rigoberto Lopez

As of June 2017, the College’s Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE) was ranked nineteenth worldwide among university agricultural economics departments, a significant achievement for a relatively small department competing with departments at much larger institutions such as Ohio State University, the University of Illinois and Purdue.

“Our goal is to continue our status as a premiere department of agricultural and resource economics, committed to excellence in teaching, research and extension,” says Rigoberto Lopez, professor and department head. “ARE is uniquely positioned within UConn, as a nexus between biological and physical sciences and the social and policy sciences.”

ARE is home to the Charles J. Zwick Center for Food and Resource Policy, which focuses on solutions to high-priority problems related to food, health, natural resources and the environment. The center is named for Charles J. Zwick, an alumnus and benefactor of the department. A distinguished scholar, public servant and business leader, Zwick served on the faculty at UConn and at Harvard University and was director of OMB during President Johnson’s administration. After leaving government service, Zwick served as president, CEO and chairman of the board of trustees for the Southeast Banking Corporation.

Recent Zwick Center activities include a pilot project involving graduate and undergraduate students to collect data on low-income households in Willimantic; co-funding a new portable economic laboratory; presentations to the Connecticut Farm Bureau and the Connecticut Department of Agriculture detailing the economic impacts of Connecticut’s agricultural industry; and funding a study on the impacts of diet quality and food consumption behavior by low-income households.

ARE encourages and supports research collaborations with other units, including the College’s Departments of Natural Resources and the Environment, Plant Science and Landscape Architecture, Extension, and the UConn School of Engineering. The department also partners with UConn’s Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity in its mission to improve public health issues related to food.

Extramural funding to the department is on the rise. Since 2015, the department has been awarded more than $2 million  per year in grant funding for projects that address issues such as climate change, health, energy, natural resources and agricultural economies. Many of these studies are designed to inform policy decisions and to generate new knowledge in the economics of these sectors.

ARE offers B.S. and M.S. degrees in applied and resource economics, and a PhD in agricultural and resource economics. Students usually concentrate in one of three areas: agribusiness and food marketing, environmental and resource economics and policy, and international development. Food and health is an emerging theme that is being incorporated into all three areas.

The department’s curriculum appeals to students seeking a social science component within a program stressing economic and business principles. These skills transfer to many different industries from economics and finance, to agriculture and healthcare.

On September 19, 2017, the Zwick Center released Economic Impacts of Connecticut’s Agricultural Industry, Update 2015. As of October 11, the report had been cited in more than 50 media outlets in Connecticut and across the United States.

Recent graduates have secured positions in various arenas. Students who have earned baccalaureate degrees are now with companies such as Hancock Agricultural Investment Group in Boston, Louis Dreyfus Commodities, Wilton, Investors’ Circle, Durham, North Carolina, Travelers and First Pioneer Farm Credit. M.S. graduates are employed at German Seed Purification/Grafting Corporation in Lippstadt, Germany, and the Economic Division of Agri2000 in Castel Maggiore, Italy. Some pursue law or other advanced degrees. Recent PhD students have been appointed as assistant professors at Colorado State University, Penn State, Rutgers, Renmin University of China, China Agricultural University and the University of Kansas. The private sector is an expanding job market for PhD graduates.

“Students are allowed a lot of flexibility to create a program of most interest to them,” says Lopez.  The programs of three current students highlight this creativity.

PhD student Mahesh Dahal plans to graduate in 2019. “After graduation, I would like to continue in international development research in an academic or a research setting,” Dahal says. “My experience as a PhD student in this department has been very positive. What I really like about it is that faculty members are very approachable and helpful, and students are provided ample opportunities to engage in research projects with faculty members.”

B.S. candidate Julia Schnelting will graduate in May 2018. She says, “After graduation I will finish my major in sales engineering and product management in my home country, Germany. After that, I am planning to go to graduate school. Being a student of applied and resource economics helped me understand many economic relationships and gave me a new view on current topics. The professors made me feel enthusiastic about my classes and my advisor always supported me and opened my mind to all the opportunities that the department and the University provide.”

As a second year applied and resource economics major, Risa Lewis plans to graduate in the spring of 2020 and says that she is looking into specific career avenues. She says, “Right now I am studying abroad in Florence, as part of a sustainable food and environmental systems program. It’s an incredible opportunity to learn about new perspectives and lifestyles that pose the possibility of a much more sustainable community, both locally and globally. And while I was initially more interested in the environmental side of the equation, my experience here so far has demonstrated how interconnected food is to the current myriad of environmental issues.”

Lewis continues,“With my love for mathematics and interest in economics, particularly behavioral economics, I am hoping to use my years in ARE to further understand the complexity of the economic role in our relationship with the environment and use that knowledge to find effective economic and social solutions. For me, pursuing environmental economics careers currently looks like delving into environmental policy and sustainable business consulting. With my planned language-oriented minors in American Sign Language interpreting and English, I’m excited to discover more ways I can help influence the global discussion and shift our societal paradigm towards a more sustainable one.”

Through the Zwick Center and numerous collaborations, many ARE programs integrate teaching, research and extension outreach.

“As part of our outreach mission, the department provides information to local, national and international policymakers, although we prioritize Connecticut problems,” Lopez says. “We consider Connecticut our campus. We provide research and outreach to organizations such as the US Agency for International Development, the US  Department of Agriculture, the Connecticut Department of Agriculture, the Connecticut Farm Bureau and Farm Credit East in Enfield.”

“We are very proud of the success of our department. It’s not easy for a small department to maintain a high ranking, but we have a lot of support from the College as well as state and international stakeholders. We cultivate strong linkages not only at the state level, but also internationally and within the profession. These connections provide not only learning and mentoring opportunities for our students, but also build strength to better serve the University and the citizens of Connecticut.”

Learn more about the Department of Agricultural and Resources Economics on the department’s website.

By Kim Colavito Markesich