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Advancing Economics, Transforming Lives

Spring 2015
In This Issue
From the Chairperson
Jayne named MSU Foundation professor for work in Africa
Nicole Mason: Collaborating across Africa for agricultural development
Rob King: An Unexpected Path
People and Awards
AFRE Alumni
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From the Interim Chairperson

Life can be like driving a car.  Most of the time we look forward, anticipating where we want to go and making plans on how to get there.  But occasionally, it's helpful to look in the rearview mirror and see where we've been.  Indeed, it's only by comparing where we are with where we have been that we can measure our progress, gain confidence in our ability to arrive at some future location, and enlist the cooperation and consensus of our traveling companions for the future journey. 


On May 15, the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics (AFRE) did both.    After a luncheon for staff and current and emeriti faculty members organized by Taylor Logan, we enjoyed a symposium on the history of the department, which was followed by the annual department meeting, where most of the focus was devoted to reviewing the qualifications of four outstanding candidates to be the next AFRE chairperson. This is a critical time for AFRE, and our future will be significantly influenced by the person we choose to be our next chair. Perhaps taking the time now to look briefly in the rearview mirror of the department can help us make the best choice.


Looking back.  In this effort we are fortunate to have Mike Weber's commitment. He was concerned that, when faculty members retired, they were dropped from the web page and their efforts lost from view.  So after his own retirement, Mike went about rebuilding profiles and gathering materials that are now available on the Emeritus/Former Faculty section of the department web page.  So when we needed someone to help organize a session on the history of the department, Mike seemed like the natural choice, and he was willing to do it.  View outputs to date at  2015 AFRE Historical Reviews.  If you have significant historical information about the origin of the department and who helped us arrive at where we are, would you drop Mike an email and be part of this effort?


Looking ahead.  As we look to the future and a new department chairperson, AFRE has benefitted from a dedicated chair search committee under the able leadership of Scott Swinton with committee members Nicky Mason, Chris Wolf, Frank Lupi and Jim Kells (chair of the Department of Plant, Soil and Microbial Sciences). Their dedication to this assignment is reflected in the four outstanding chairperson candidates who visited the department before the annual faculty meeting.  The four chairperson candidates who interviewed are Titus Awokuse, Joan Fulton, Cathy Roheim and Ian Sheldon.


Finally, thank you for your support of AFRE-your contributions in the past have helped us arrive at this point in time, and your continuing commitment will help us build a bright future in which we continue to develop policy solutions and extension/outreach programs for reducing poverty, hunger and natural resource degradation; manage food and resource businesses in a global setting; partner with biophysical and social scientists to evaluate new production and policy approaches; and add to the knowledge base of theory and methods.


All the best,


Lindon J. Robison 

Thom Jayne 

Jayne named MSU Foundation professor for work in Africa 



Thom Jayne has been named an MSU Foundation Professor, a new honor designed to recognize the work of outstanding university faculty members. The professorship is supported by the MSU Foundation in partnership with the MSU Office of Research and Graduate Studies.  Jayne will receive up to $60,000 per year over the next five years that he can use for research-related expenses such as travel, salaries and graduate student tuition.


David Washburn, executive director of the MSU Foundation, said this type of program is vital if MSU hopes to retain its best and brightest faculty members. Washburn said the foundation wants to name 25 MSU foundation professors over the next few years.


"This is one tool we can make available to help the university retain and attract the best," Washburn said. "In turn, we expect the recipients will help us increase our preeminence as a major research institution that solves the world's hard problems."


That is exactly what Jayne has been doing since he joined AFRE in 1989 and moved to sub-Saharan Africa for the first time with MSU. He decided that his work would focus on the ways in which government policies affected smallholder farmers as they struggled to feed themselves and climb out of poverty.


Jayne sees positive change happening in much of Africa, and increasingly it's Africans who are taking the lead in policy analysis and guiding government officials.  Jayne cited the Indaba Agricultural Policy Institute (IAPRI), a Zambian think tank that grew out of a policy analysis training project with Jayne, Nicholas Sitko, Nicole Mason and others from the MSU Food Security Group. He also pointed to Egerton University's Tegemeo Institute in Kenya, where he has worked with African colleagues for almost 20 years.


"African policymakers increasingly expect to be relying on African analysts to guide them," Jayne said. "The time has now come where there's enough African expertise that MSU can be making itself a valuable partner by supporting African organizations to do many of the things that international researchers used to do directly."


Recently, Jayne has been turning his attention to a looming challenge called the "youth bulge." Over the next 20 years, 350 million young Africans will be entering the workforce.


In April, Jayne traveled to several African capitals to help African colleagues prepare and present a program titled "Megatrends in Africa and the Factors Shaping Them." The youth bulge is one of those megatrends.  With 70 percent of Africa's population currently working in agriculture, "its viability will influence whether millions of young Africans are gainfully employed in farming or underemployed in informal sector jobs.  The labor force is growing too rapidly to absorb most of the youth into viable non-farm jobs,"  Jayne said.


During his April travel, Jayne also sought to promote the efforts of IAPRI and seven other African policy institutes, whose analysts will be working on this dilemma in the coming years. Later this year, they will present their findings on the population and jobs issue to the African Union.


"Our role is to work with governments and increasingly local policy institutes in Africa to do the analysis that will guide governments on how to address this huge challenge," Jayne said.


"In my mind, Thom was the ideal candidate for this honor," said Lindon Robison, AFRE interim chairperson. "He has an amazing blend of scholarship, along with service aspirations for solving problems of poverty, and he does both really well." 


The list of Jayne's successes in securing grants and publishing articles is long. His published work has been cited almost 7,000 times by economists and agricultural economists worldwide, Robison said. Jayne has been the principal investigator or co-principal investigator on over $45 million of external grants since 2008. A $7.8 million Gates Foundation grant he secured in 2013 is helping to fund the work of at least seven other MSU faculty members involved in research in Africa. As testament to the esteem in which he is held in Africa, in 2013 Jayne was inducted as a fellow of the African Association of Agricultural Economists.


Jayne is a home-grown product who received his master's and doctorate from MSU.


"Thom is AFRE," Robison said, "and having him recognized for this honor sends a significant message to potential faculty members that this is a premier place to develop a career."  


Jayne's list of accomplishments also includes being a dissertation advisor for eight Ph.D. researchers who have graduated since 2010, five of whom are assistant professors at U.S. universities. Two of them, Nicole Mason and Milu Muyanga, are AFRE assistant professors at MSU.  Both Muyanga and Mason, along with assistant professor Jordan Chamberlin, have provided valuable assistance in building the university's relationship with African research institutes, Jayne noted. 


As the years go by, Jayne has come to realize that it's the people he meets and the relationships he builds - both at MSU and in Africa - that provide meaning to his work as it  carries forward, he hopes, into future generations. 


"That's what will have the most lasting impact, far more than what I write," he said.

   -- Christine Meyer  

Nicole Mason

Nicole Mason: Collaborating across Africa for agricultural development     


As a young Peace Corps volunteer in the African nation of Guinea, Nicole Mason discovered her passion for working with smallholder farmers in Africa, which led her to graduate school at MSU and her current position as an assistant professor in the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.


"I loved interacting with the farmers in my village in Guinea, particularly the women's gardening cooperatives, chatting with them and learning about the opportunities and challenges they faced," said Mason, whose job in the Peace Corps involved environmental education and agroforestry.


When she returned to the United States, Mason said she missed her interactions with the farming community, so she got involved with the local foods movement in Pennsylvania, where she had graduated from Allegheny College with a degree in biology. She also realized that she wanted to continue to work and travel internationally. She decided to focus on food security issues in Africa and chose Michigan State as the place to earn her advanced degrees. She received her master's and doctorate in agricultural economics. 


"MSU has been a great fit for me," said Mason, who grew up near Rochester, N.Y. "Our long-term engagement in and commitment to building research capacity in Africa really sets MSU apart from other universities."  


When Mason joined the Michigan State faculty in 2011, she was based in Lusaka, Zambia, and was also a research fellow with the Indaba Agricultural Policy Research Institute, or IAPRI. During her second year in Zambia, she became the capacity building coordinator. While in Zambia, she did collaborative research with Zambian partners, conducted technical training sessions for IAPRI staff members on agricultural policy analysis and quantitative methods, and  taught two master's-level classes at the University of Zambia in a brand new agricultural economics program.   


"Collaborating with researchers at IAPRI has been a wonderful learning experience. We learn from one another," Mason said. "They know the Zambian context far better than I ever could, no matter how many trips I take there. They ensure that our work is grounded in the local context, and I can help them improve their skill sets in other ways, so it's a mutually beneficial partnership."  


Armed with the knowledge she gained from working and living in Africa for two years, Mason returned to East Lansing in 2013 for a new assignment as an assistant professor in the tenure system. Part of her current research focuses on the resurgent role of governments in agricultural markets in Africa, with an emphasis on agricultural input subsidy and crop purchase programs.


"I began studying these programs a few years ago and started out looking at the effects of the programs on fertilizer and hybrid seed use as well as cropping patterns," she said. "Now I'm focusing more on higher level impacts of the programs, such as their effects on poverty among small farmers in Zambia and Kenya."


She sums up the lessons learned in an engaging video called "The Scoop on Fertilizer Subsidies" released May 20, 2015. The 20-minute talk appears in the AgTalks series on IFAD TV  (International Fund for Agricultural Development). 


She also has been working with her first graduate student advisee to understand how subsidies for inorganic fertilizer in Zambia affect farmers' use of other soil fertility management practices.


"These practices can improve soil quality and the effectiveness of inorganic fertilizer, so we want to understand if the fertilizer subsidy program was encouraging or discouraging farmers' use of these practices," she explained. "Improving soil health is high on the policy agenda-in fact, 2015 has been named the International Year of Soils by the United Nations - so this is an important issue.


"I was a biology major and have a longstanding interest in the interactions between agriculture, the environment and development. It's an area I would like to explore more in the future," Mason said.


She will travel back to Zambia early this summer to help train trainers for an upcoming IAPRI survey of about 8,000 smallholder farm households. The households were first interviewed back in 2012, and the goal is to reinterview them this year to track changes over time in their farm and off-farm activities. She will use these data in her research in the coming years.


Later this summer, Mason plans to travel to Kenya to share with policymakers the findings of her work on fertilizer subsidy issues there. This work is in collaboration with colleagues at the Tegemeo Institute of Agricultural Policy and Development, which is a unit of Kenya's Egerton University.


Mason's first teaching experience at MSU came this past year and involved two graduate-level courses. One was a statistics class for first-year master's students. She team-taught the other class - "Agriculture and Economic Development"-with another relative newcomer, assistant professor Saweda Liverpool-Tasie. The class included students from just about every continent, Mason said.


"That made for some really rich discussions," she said. "I've always enjoyed teaching, and the talented graduate students we have in AFRE made both classes a lot of fun to teach. Saweda was wonderful to work with as well, and we're excited to teach together again this coming fall."


-Christine Meyer
Rob King

Rob King: An Unexpected Path


The day Rob King arrived at the

MSU Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics, few would have predicted that he would become president and fellow of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) and chairperson of a leading department of applied economics.


The Ohio native graduated from Yale University in 1972 with a degree in anthropology and then enrolled in the Peace Corps for a two-year stint working with farmers in Benin. Upon his return, King visited with friends at MSU
and was introduced to Prof. Carl Eicher, who at the time had several large, ongoing projects in West Africa. "Eicher encouraged me to apply for the graduate program in agricultural economics, which I did," King said. "Thankfully, it was a very flexible program. It was very unusual to find a program of that stature willing to accept someone who, at that point, had never taken an economics course.

"So I spent that summer taking intermediate micro- and macroeconomics courses, had the good fortune to start work with Derek Byerlee on my master's thesis ("An Analysis of Rural Consumption Patterns in Sierra Leone and Their Employment and Growth Effects") and then quickly realized that I had found my life's work."


King received his master's degree in 1977 and doctorate in 1979 under the guidance of major professor Warren Vincent, with Lindon Robison serving as Ph.D. dissertation supervisor.  After teaching at Michigan State for one semester, he moved on to Colorado State University, where he was an assistant professor in the Department of Economics for four years. In 1983, he moved to the University of Minnesota as an associate professor to take up the E. Fred Koller Chair in Agricultural Management Information Systems in the Department of Applied Economics, which he occupied from 1983 to 2004. He subsequently served as department head from 2004 to 2008.

King currently teaches undergraduate and graduate courses on managerial economics and food systems. He served as coordinator of the agricultural business management undergraduate major (1988-90), director of graduate studies in the Department of Applied Economics (1994-97) and in '96 received the Distinguished Teacher Award from the College of Agricultural, Food, and Environmental Sciences. He also has been active in international teaching programs, lecturing in Brazil, Hungary, The Netherlands and Poland over the past several years.


In addition, King has served on the board of directors of the Minnesota Institute for Sustainable Agriculture, the Administrative Council for the North Central Region Sustainable Agriculture Research and Education program and the International Advisory Board for the Mansholt Graduate School of Social Sciences at Wageningen University in the Netherlands.

In 2011, King was elected president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association (AAEA) after serving on its board of directors. Three years later, he received the AAEA's highest honor, designation as a fellow.  He said that one of the most rewarding aspects of his term as president was watching how the association "opened up to agricultural and applied economists from all over the world, especially those from countries with the lowest per capita incomes."

As for future applied economists-perhaps even those who earn their bachelor's degrees in unrelated fields-King offers these recommendations:


  • "Look for questions, issues and problems that are of interest to you and are important for others: connect to the real world. Then let the problem dictate your research strategy-don't let methods define the problem.

  • "As a teacher, focus on learning activities that develop 'generative' students with insight and ability to adapt and use an idea, method or tool in many different settings. Case study analyses, problem sets and even exam questions should not be treated as 'one-off' exercises to be finished and forgotten. They should be carefully crafted illustrations of problem-solving processes that can be applied in many ways. 

  • "Be open to and follow up on hunches, even though most of them will not pan out. Creativity often comes out of logical leaps to ideas that may be true. While economics gives us a very useful way of looking at the world, it also can be useful to approach problems with a 'beginner's mind' that is free from disciplinary blinders."

King followed a hunch more than four decades ago that panned out well and has rewarded him, his students and his colleagues many times over. The former anthropology major continues to dig for agricultural solutions across the globe in ways that, at one time, he might never have imagined.


 -Mark Meyer 


People and Awards     


Assistant Professor Nicole Mason delivers "The Scoop on Fertilizer Subsidies" in the AgTalks series on IFAD TV.  The 20-minute online video was released May 20, 2015. 


Ruth Fienup, widow of Professor Darrell Fienup, passed away at age 85 on May 23, 2015, in Okemos, Mich. 


Faculty Awards and Honors

Professor Thom Jayne was named MSU Foundation Professor.  (See story in this issue.)


Assistant Professor Milu Muyanga and Phillip Musyoka were awarded the 2014 Outstanding Publication Prize by the Journal of Poverty Alleviation and International Development for their article, "Household Incomes and Poverty Dynamics in Rural Kenya: A Panel Data Analysis" (Volume 5, Number 2, 2014).  


Assistant Professor David Ortega received from the Journal of Agribusiness in Developing and Emerging Economiesits Outstanding Paper Award of 2014 for "Agricultural Marketing and Food Safety in China: A Utility Perspective."


At the AFRE annual faculty and staff meeting May 15, the following departmental awards were given:

2015 Award for Excellence in Teaching: R. Brent Ross.

2015 Award for Excellence in Research: Soren Anderson.

2015 Award for Excellence in Extension Outreach: H. Christopher Peterson.

2015 Lifetime Service Award: Nancy Creed,


Student News

In April 2015 elections, the AFRE Graduate Student Organization elected Sarah Kopper as president, Hamza Haider as vice president and Nathaly Rivera as secretary/treasurer.


Incoming M.S. student Sarah Klammer made statewide news by completing her bachelor's degree in economics from Saginaw Valley State University and graduating from high school at the same time in May 2015.


Student Awards and Honors

Eleanor Turner won the department's Best M.S. Thesis Award of 2014 for "Determinants of Crop Diversification among Mozambican Smallholders: Evidence from Household Panel Date" (major professor: E. Crawford). 


Sangjun Lee won the department's Best Ph.D. Dissertation Award of 2014 for "Adaptations to Climate Change: Extreme Events Versus Gradual Changes" (major professors: S. Thornsbury and J. Zhao).


At the 2015 AFRE Graduate Research Symposium, March 19-20, 2015, three presenters won awards:


Marie Steele for Best Presentation of Research at the Idea Stage.

Ayala Wineman for Best Presentation of Research in Progress.

Serge Adjognon for Best Presentation of Completed Research.


AFRE Alumni News     



Eric Trachtenberg (M.S., 1990) is now director for the Food and Agriculture Sector at McLarty Associates in Washington, D.C.



Denys Nizalov (M.S., 2004; Ph.D., 2006) and his wife, Olena Nizalova, moved to the United Kingdom in 2013, where Denys is an associate lecturer in economics.  He and Olena retain their affiliations with the Kyiv School of Economics in Ukraine.



Rie Muraoka (Ph.D., 2015) has taken a postdoctoral research associate position with the National Graduate Institute for Policy Studies (GRIPS) in Tokyo, Japan. 


Alexandra Peralta (Ph.D., 2014) was promoted in May to tenure-system lecturer in global food studies at the University of Adelaide in South Australia.


Guilherme Signorini (Ph.D., 2015) has taken a consulting position with Markestrat Consulting (http://www.markestrat.org/), Ribeirao Preto, Sao Paulo, Brazil.




Advancing Economics, Transforming Lives is the quarterly newsletter of the Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics at Michigan State University (http://www.afre.msu.edu/).

Scott M. Swinton
Mark J. Meyer and Christine Meyer
Assistant Editor:
Debbie Conway
Editing Assistance:
ANR Communications