Swinton receives MSU Outstanding Faculty Award

Collaborative research keeps work fresh and interesting for Professor Scott Swinton. So does working with graduate students. Successfully integrating the two helped Swinton earn this year's MSU William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award.

September 14, 2015

Scott Swinton

Collaborative research keeps work fresh and interesting for Professor Scott Swinton. So does working with graduate students. Successfully integrating the two helped Swinton earn this year’s MSU William J. Beal Outstanding Faculty Award.

Swinton is an agricultural and environmental economist who joined the MSU faculty in 1991 and now serves as associate chairperson of the Department of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics.

“I enjoy working on projects that make the world a better place,” Swinton said. “Most of my research deals with how farmers can manage to be profitable and improve environmental stewardship.”

On the Great Lakes Watershed Ecological Sustainability Strategy, Swinton and MSU colleagues collaborated with The Nature Conservancy and LimnoTech, Inc., to encourage agricultural conservation.  In the face of a resurgence of harmful algal blooms in western Lake Erie, Swinton and Ph.D. candidate Leah Palm-Forster explored economic incentives that would lead farmers to reduce the amount of phosphorus flowing into Lake Erie from their fields and thereby abate the algal blooms.

The pair started in 2013 by conducting four experimental conservation auctions with farmers in the Maumee River basin of northwestern Ohio, a significant source of agricultural runoff. But instead of simply awarding the conservation dollars to the lowest bidder, they worked with Todd Redder of LimnoTech, who adapted USDA’s SWAT model to simulate how much the proposed conservation practices on each field would change the amount of phosphorus entering Lake Erie tributaries. They ranked the bids by cost per pound of phosphorus reduction to get the biggest “bang for the conservation buck.”  Through the auction experiments, Swinton, Palm-Forster, and AFRE Associate Professor Rob Shupp found that direct payments and tax credits were more cost-effective than green insurance and certification premiums.

Then in 2014, they conducted a real conservation auction with an eligible pool of almost 1,000 landowners in two counties of the Tiffin River watershed.  Less than 2 percent chose to participate. From a survey to learn why, Swinton and Palm-Forster discovered that some farmers already were practicing conservation. Others said there was too much paperwork or the process was too complicated.  The finding “helped us recognize that we need ways forward on conservation policy that aren’t complicated,” Swinton said.

Working with graduate students on research puzzles builds intuition and skills that they will use for the rest of their careers, Swinton said.  Palm-Forster agreed, saying skills she developed such as collaboration, project management and navigating the research process with Swinton as her adviser should help her greatly as she transitions to her new job as an assistant professor of applied economics and statistics at the University of Delaware.

Swinton provided the right amount of guidance while also leaving her free to explore her own questions and ideas, she wrote in an email.

“Instead of dictating how our research would progress, Dr. Swinton encouraged me to take ownership of our project,” she said. “He allowed me to explore research questions that I found interesting, and he valued my ideas and input. He has high expectations for his students, and he works closely with them to set goals.”

Swinton has co-authored more than 30 journal articles with his graduate students. He has supervised theses that have won nine departmental and three national awards. His students come from around the world, and he has supervised thesis field research in eight countries. As associate chairperson of the department, he also directs AFRE’s 90-student graduate program.   

Swinton views agriculture as a managed ecosystem that generates both farm products and ecosystem services.  Farm products have markets, but ecosystem services often do not.  To him, there is no bigger challenge in agriculture than to find ways to encourage farmers to manage for those beneficial ecosystem services while maintaining profitability.  On the NSF-suppported Long-term Ecological Research in Row Crop Ecosystems  project (KBS-LTER), Swinton works with researchers in ecology, soil science, plant biology, entomology and microbiology on agricultural sustainability and bioenergy issues.

“Virtually all problems are interdisciplinary,” Swinton said. “I believe the most promising way to attack them is with teams of people who know their own fields very well and can work together productively.”

by Christine Meyer

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