Perspectives, Philosophy, and Agricultural Economics

By Lee, John E., Jr. | Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics, August 2005 | Go to article overview

Perspectives, Philosophy, and Agricultural Economics


Lee, John E., Jr., Journal of Agricultural and Applied Economics


Thank you for honoring me with the SAEA Lifetime Achievement Award. When I review the list of past honorees and their truly impressive contributions, I am flattered and pleased to be among them.

Past honorees have used this occasion to comment on some aspects of the state of our profession. I think often about that topic and about the global forces swirling around us that challenge us to change or become irrelevant. My feeling is that, although a few in our profession might be fighting a last-ditch rearguard action, the front line of our profession is rapidly morphing into something quite different from what we thought of as agricultural economics in the past. Most of that change is both good and necessary; some of it puts us on a slippery slope.

We had to change because our world has changed, and with it our clientele, our priorities, and ourselves. We see that change in the younger members of our profession: how they are trained, the tools at their disposal, their view of the world, and the problems they are addressing. The newer members of our profession likely did not come from a farm or even a rural area. Their degrees could well be in general economics or some discipline other than agricultural economics; but if in agricultural economics, those degrees are very different from the narrow focus on farm production and marketing that was typical a generation or two ago. These younger economists likely see the object of their scholarship not as a farm or farmer, but as a global food system, linked by tightly managed supply chains that operate largely independent of national borders. This obviously means that the audience for our scholarship now includes all who have a stake in this bigger system. This changes our priorities and challenges our traditional sources of support and funding.

The demographic changes in our profession and in our institutions are a part of this bigger world change. When I started trying to be an agricultural economist in the 1950s, most of my fellow graduate students had farm backgrounds, as did their professors. Farming is what they studied and farmers were who they served. Many state legislators came from farms; those on the agricultural committees most certainly did. Ditto for Federal legislators. The USDA was dominated by employees from farms and rural areas. Thus, farmers dealt with farm-friendly legislators and USDA employees, advised by farm-friendly and farm-savvy economists. Today, our professions, legislatures, and institutions are essentially staffed by people from nonfarm backgrounds. That alone has an effect on how issues are perceived and our agenda gets shaped.

On a personal note, I have found it exciting to be an observer and participant in this transformation. I view the changes over the last four decades as largely positive and responsive to the changing needs of the times. As members of the profession, we have the skills, tools, and perspective to provide useful insight and understanding to an audience of food system participants and policy makers who are caught up in a world of rapid and often confusing change. Whether we fulfill this potential depends on how well we and our administrators deal with the funding and political challenges we face, and how well we demonstrate our value to a parsimonious and sometimes dubious public and body politic.

Most of my career was spent at two institutions; USDA's Economic Research Service (ERS) and Mississippi State University (MSU). I am indebted to both institutions for the opportunities provided me and for the people who helped me along the way, including those who tried to teach me a few things. They are not responsible for any failures to learn.

At ERS, I was very much influenced in my views of the opportunities and responsibilities of agricultural economists by my early interactions with such men as Ernest Wieking (ethics and moral responsibility), Charlie Kellogg (a noted soil scientist and self-taught economist with a big view of the world), Warren Bailey (lateral thinking), John Brewster (a brilliant philosopher among agricultural economists), Fred Waugh (unlimited intellectual curiosity), Don Paarlberg, and many others. …

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