PhD in Agricultural Economics, Texas A&M University; MS from West Texas A&M University; Bachelors in Systems Agriculture, N.G. Ranga Agricultural University, India
Briefly describe your career path from college until today.
I finished my bachelors, which was in general agriculture, but I definitely had an interest in agricultural economics, and that’s what I wanted to pursue. I did a brief stint in India going for a masters, but it wasn’t what I was expecting. I said, ok, maybe this is not it. I applied for a masters at West Texas A&M, and that was my first step into learning about conservation.
For my masters, I worked on the Ogallala Aquifer, which is the only water resource in the area for agriculture. I, along with many others, was looking into what we should grow and how much we should irrigate. Then we did what is called is a dynamic optimization analysis, looking into the production alternatives for the region and the overall returns if farmers change their production mix. I had great people advising me, Dr. Lal Almas and Dr. Bobby Stewart. Dr. Stewart is a very well-known soil scientist. I had the opportunity to interact with Dr. Stewart on a very regular basis, and he was the one who introduced me to resource conservation.
After my masters, I had the opportunity to go for a PhD at the Texas A&M, and I’m very proud to be an “Aggie.” There I worked with Dr. Ron Lacewell and Dr. Ed Rister. Both of them are resource and production economists, and that is where I got introduced to the policy surrounding conservation. After I finished my PhD I worked for the Natural Resources Defense Council (NRDC) in Washington, DC, in their water program for two years. We were looking at the impact of the Clean Water Act on the economy as a whole. And I got the opportunity to interact with a lot of sharp people at NRDC. Then Louisiana State University (LSU) was putting together a faculty cohort in the area of water resources, and I moved there.
What was the best advice you received regarding your career?
One, for sure, I still keep in mind was from Dr. Ed Rister. He always told me to keep your head high and keep moving forward and do something. Don’t sit down and worry about what you’re going to do, just do it. I follow that, even today. You’ve got to do something. I keep learning, keep my head high and move forward.
I was lucky enough to have good mentors, along with my parents, all my life. My wife has always been a great support. When I joined LSU, I started my career at the research station instead of on campus; it was a blessing in disguise because the research center director was an excellent mentor, Dr. Patrick Colyer. He told me all the time: go talk to farmers. You sit in front of the computer and you look at model after model and they start to tell you exactly what you want them to tell you, but then you talk to the farmer and you learn why they do what they do. The majority of my appointment is extension. It definitely helped me to communicate with the farmers and learn the kind of practices they’re putting on the ground. It helped me develop my research and extension goals.
Describe the best choices that you’ve made along your career path?
One for sure was to go for a PhD. I was debating if I should enter the job market right after my masters, but finances did play a big role because I was given a full scholarship for my PhD. Then fast forward a couple years, when LSU opened my current job, I was debating for a number of days, should I move away from the policy world in DC which I definitely enjoyed. But I think taking this position was one of the best decisions I’ve made so far in my career because I was placed at a research station, and I wasn’t sure what a research station would provide for a young career professional. It gave me a lot of opportunities to go and interact with farmers on a daily basis. And it was something that you cannot put a value on.
How has SWCS impacted your career, or contributed to your continued education and/or professional development?
For the past four years, I’ve attended the SWCS’s Annual Conference. I’ve learned a great deal from the other participants, like Linda Prokopy—she’s faculty at Purdue. I met her and I started to follow her research. I found I had a lot to learn. I’m also part of the Science and Policy Committee, and I’ve learned a lot from those folks. When I go to the meeting and see other members present their material, it gives me ideas and other objectives I want to pursue from an economic standpoint. It’s been truly valuable.
What changes in required skillsets do you foresee?
Early on I always assumed that agricultural economists spend a lot of time in their offices, in front of computers, doing modeling and data analysis. But I have learned that we need to step out of the office, interact with the farmers and other conservation folks. That will help you come up with research ideas and outcomes that are more pragmatic and realistic. When I started working as an agricultural economist and interacting with farmers, I realized that my perspective was wrong—not all agricultural economists are stuck in the office. There are economists that are interacting at different levels, at the policy level or farm level, and I choose the farm level. I would encourage that shift in thinking. We can come up with 100 different solutions, but what works for farmers is what they’ll actually implement. I personally feel that as much as research is important, getting accessible materials to the farmer is just as important. I’m proud of the extension work I do, and I’m proud of all the extension folks.
What is your average day like?
On a day to day basis, it just depends. Our row crop season in Louisiana mostly ends by the second half of October. And then planting begins in the middle of February or March. In between that time I travel to producer meetings to talk with them about our research or the decision tools we have developed to help them. I work individually with farmers who have questions like whether they should invest in a particular irrigation efficiency tool. During the crop season, I usually go to the Soil and Water Conservation District (SWCD) meetings on a regular basis. I try to spend most of my time out of the office. But, as with any academic position, publishing is an important component; there are days I spend writing, and days I spend driving. Hard to answer!
What advice would you give to college students who want to go into agricultural economics?
First, some general advice: I think you need to be ready to learn. Once you’re in the real world it is important to identify groups, individuals, agencies, that are in your line of work. For example, I work very closely with the NRCS in Louisiana and the SWCDs. And that is advice that I always give to my students, you need to have that interaction because they will tell you why a particular policy is in place, and is written the way it is, and how you can take that message to the farmer. Make an effort to start that conversation. No meeting or phone call is useless. It will pay back, either now or sometime in the future, but that connection will have value.