The United States Department of Agriculture’s (USDA) Economic Research Service (ERS) has become a second home to recent alumni of the Michigan State University Department of Agricultural, Food, and Resource Economics (AFRE) Graduate Program. ERS is the Federal Government’s research collection arm for economic trends affecting agriculture, food, the environment, and rural America. ERS now counts six recent AFRE graduate program alumni among its ranks: Stephen Morgan '18, Sophia Tanner '18, Samantha Padilla '19, Jarrad Farris '20, Danielle Ufer '21, and Christine Sauer '21.
AFRE’s commitment to applied research and graduate concentration in ‘food and agriculture’ make ERS a fitting landing spot for alumni of the department’s graduate program. As employees of ERS, AFRE alumni apply their broad training in the economics of food, agriculture, environment, and trade to research that shapes public policy and improves the lives of millions.
Dr. Stephen Morgan works for ERS’s International Trade and Development (ITD) Branch of the Market and Trade Economics Division. Morgan says he took a position with ERS because “ERS plays an important role in producing high-quality research that shapes what we know about the important problems facing the U.S. and global food system. Being part of a team that identifies and develops approaches to study these agricultural issues is exciting and is what attracted me to ERS.” Morgan’s research program focuses on international trade, agricultural productivity, technology adoption, and producer behavior.
Dr. Sophia Tanner a research economist in the Conservation and Environment Branch of ERS, echoes Morgan’s sentiments and adds that that not only do economists at ERS have a real-world impact but they, “have access to unique administrative datasets, resources and support for research, as well as a collegial atmosphere.” Tanner’s research explores farmer program participation and valuation of ecosystem services using revealed and stated preference methods.
AFRE Graduate Program Director and Associate Chairperson Dr. Nicole Mason-Wardell is not surprised to see so many graduates of the program finding a second home at ERS, noting, “Many students come to our program motivated by a desire to do applied research that has the power to shape policy and improve the lives of others. Our graduate program helps students develop the skillset and experiences they need to do just that. I think ERS is an ideal job placement for so many of our graduates because it’s an opportunity to apply what they’ve learned in the service of creating policy-relevant research.”
Morgan says, “AFRE prepared me for my current position by providing incredible opportunities to study both international and U.S. agriculture. From running experimental auctions with bean farmers in Tanzania to researching agricultural technology adoption among Michigan wheat growers, I was able to better understand how producers are making important on-farm decisions in very different food systems. At ERS this background helps me identify how changing international trade flows and markets can shape the incentives facing agricultural producers and affect opportunities for U.S. agriculture.”
Dr. Samantha Padilla an ERS agricultural economist working on livestock production systems and the cost of production of various commodities, notes that her training at AFRE included research skills but also outreach skills too. Padilla says, “In conversations with faculty, I learned about the importance of communicating results to audiences outside of academia. This has been an essential skill for me at ERS, as part of my work deals with cost of production estimates, a data product of interest to policy makers.”
For AFRE alumni their experience at ERS has been enhanced by the camaraderie they developed during their time at MSU. Morgan says, “I feel incredibly lucky to get to work with AFRE alumni who are not only talented economists but are great colleagues. We’re able to bounce ideas off of one another and are even coauthoring research together!”
In 2021 Morgan and Padilla were awarded a grant to conduct research together on market facilitation program payments. Padilla says, “[Stephen Morgan and I] never had a chance to work together at MSU, and now, thanks to ERS we are able to study an issue of great interest to USDA and stakeholders.”
AFRE Department Chair Dr. Scott Swinton says, “The ERS has hired many of our top graduates over the past three years. The agency’s staff attrition when it moved to Kansas City in 2018 created tremendous job opportunities at a historical moment when the academic market was soft. Not only have our graduates found a home where their research makes a difference, but the influx of AFRE Ph.D. graduates at ERS has strengthened our department’s ties with the agency”