I got my bachelor’s degree from Virginia Tech where I started as an animal science major and then quickly discovered I was really enjoying all the agricultural economics courses so I decided to get a dual degree in both majors. I stayed at Virginia Tech for my master’s in Agricultural and Applied Economics with a concentration in international development. The goal of my thesis research was to identify strategies to cost-effectively disseminate information about integrated pest management (IPM) to farmers in South Asia.
Could you talk a little bit about that work?
We designed a project to analyze how the federal extension budget in Bangladesh could be reallocated to disseminate IPM information more cost-effectively by reaching more farmers and increasing adoption of different IPM technology packages. I did field work in Bangladesh for eight weeks during the summer to interview agricultural and extension experts. I stayed with a host family while I was in Bangladesh and it was a great experience.
After my M.S. at Virginia Tech, I went to Michigan State University for a PhD in agricultural, food and resource economics. I shifted my research focus from international development to domestic agri-environmental challenges.
Did you do any research at Michigan State with regards to that topic?
I did. My research examined how to design programs and policies to enhance ecosystem services and environmental benefits in agricultural landscapes. In my research, I used experimental conservation auctions and also designed two real conservation auctions.
In conservation auctions, farmers submit bids for the amount of money they would require to use different best management practices (BMPs). Bids are evaluated using different types of models to predict the amount of environmental benefit that would be generated by those BMPs. For example, benefits could be measured as the amount of reduced phosphorus runoff or the amount of sediment reduction. Bid evaluation considers both the amount of money being requested and also the benefits that would be generated by those projects. There are a number of different metrics you can use to evaluate the bids, but the basic idea is that you can select and fund the most cost-effective bids.
Sometimes these auctions are called reverse auctions because instead of farmers bidding to buy something, they’re actually the sellers of an environmental good and then the buyer is an agency, the government or a non-governmental organization (NGO).
I conducted the experimental auctions in a watershed that feeds into the western basin of Lake Erie. Lake Erie has been a poster child of poor water quality recently because of harmful algal blooms (HABs) that are fueled by too much phosphorous, primarily from agricultural sources.
When you’re in Ohio and Michigan, everyone talks about these algal blooms because, in addition to being a nuisance, they’re also toxic. In 2014, they contaminated the water supply for half a million people near Toledo so it was a really timely project, which was great as a graduate student because I felt like my research actually could make an impact in the area.
During the second half of my PhD, I actually designed two real auctions. In the experimental auctions, farmers were in a hypothetical scenario. But in the real auctions, farmers submitted bids and we paid some of them to adopt various practices like cover crops and filter strips.
And you came to UD after that?
I came directly here from Michigan State and I started in August of 2015. I defended my dissertation over the summer and then moved to Delaware. It was a whirlwind, but it was also very exciting.
What’s the main focus of your work here at UD?
My focus is still on this intersection between agriculture and the environment and thinking about how we can design agri-environmental programs that engage more farmers and are more cost-effective. We need to find ways to maintain agricultural production that we rely on in the United States and globally, but also to improve environmental conditions instead of having the kinds of the negative impacts that are sometimes associated with agriculture.
What made you decide to come to UD?
I was attracted to UD because of the work that’s being done in this department, Applied Economics and Statistics. Our faculty have published a lot of excellent research examining land use policy, and water quality issues associated with agricultural production. The Center for Experimental and Applied Economics (CEAE) is a great resource in the department, and I’m also honored to be a research fellow with the Center for Behavioral and Experimental Agri-environmental Research (C-BEAR). Research priorities within the department seem to align well with my personal interests so I am eager to find opportunities for collaboration.
When I visited UD for my interview, I felt like people were really energized and motivated. We’ve had several new hires in statistics within our department so it seemed like there could also be opportunities to collaborate with them. I met with graduate students and undergraduate students and everyone seemed excited. It felt like it would be both a fun and productive place to work.
Has that been your impression since you’ve been here?
It has. I think because of the strong foundation that’s already here, I’ve been able to hit the ground running and this first semester I’ve designed an economic experiment to look at how different policies could impact water quality. I’ve enjoyed working with some faculty in the department as well as graduate and undergraduate students.
What are you most looking forward to? Is it the collaboration and the research?
Yes, I’m really looking forward to that. I think there’s a lot of opportunity for the research that I do here to have impact both in the agricultural community and also for people who aren’t involved in agriculture but who value the environmental resources in the area. The Chesapeake Bay is an important resource in this region and a lot of the work I did at Michigan State transfers here. My research is moving from one watershed to another, but the water quality challenges are similar and a lot of the issues stem from how we produce agricultural goods. I think there are opportunities to conduct research that could really improve agri-environmental policy.
Any interesting hobbies outside of work?
I like trail running and practicing yoga. My husband and I love this area – we trail run on the Fair Hill Nature Reserve with our two dogs. I also horseback ride and I knew about all of the great resources here. I’m originally from Virginia, so this area feels like home.
I am excited to begin teaching next semester (Spring 2016). I’ll teach two undergraduate courses. One is Resource Economics and the other is Ag and Natural Resource Policy.
Article by Adam Thomas