What should an economics major do in agricultural development?
February 1, 2012 5:13 PM   Subscribe

Help! What should an economics major do in agricultural development?

I'll be graduating in June with an Economics undergraduate degree, with an emphasis in international development. Last summer, I worked with a Micro-finance company in Africa. While I enjoyed the experience, and got a lot from it, I don't think Micro-finance can effectively deal with issues in rural agricultural development.

I'm in the process of talking to my contacts and professors, but I'd like Metafilter's input. If this helps, I'm based in Seattle.

I'm interested in working in SOME way with agricultural development and food security, but I'm not sure how. I don't have any real farming or engineering experience. I'm okay at math, good at talking and giving presentations, and enjoy doing 'analysis' things. I'm willing to work either domestically or abroad, and willing to get farming experience.

How can I help with food security? What entry level jobs are there, both domestically and abroad? What skills should I garner? Who, outside my immediate contacts, should I try and ask these questions to? Who are the leaders in the field? Where should I try and get internships?

I've been in a bit of terror-induced stasis about post-graduate life for a couple months. I'd like to stop that, and start doing more things that will help me towards the future.

If it helps, here are two related thoughts I've had:

-WOOF-ing after college could give me some education about farming. However, it probably wouldn't be rigorous, and I'm afraid it wouldn't ultimately help me out on a future job search that much. Are these fears sensible?

-Medium sized investing: While I don't think micro-finance will help with food security, I do think that identifying weak points of the agriculture supply chain and investing in improvements would help. But I'm still not sure where I could involve myself, what skills I would need, or how to really get into the field.

Thanks for any input!
posted by justalisteningman to Work & Money (10 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
Farmers in the third world already know how to farm, what many don't have is knowledge of world markets and how to navigate the bureaucracy well. Knowledge gained about how to farm in the US will often be wrong about how to farm in the rest of the world, and the farmers that are left (at least the corporate big farms)are already plenty business savvy. Maybe finding some way to develop markets for small farms? If you want to stay in the US and develop a local, small farm economy try to work with some group that helps revitalize smaller towns near major agricultural areas.

To further reinforce my above point-farmers are going to take a dim view of an outsider coming in and telling them how to farm (even if you are right), they are more likely to be receptive to someone coming in and telling them how to make more money from what they already farm (and then you have credibility and can start in on better practices if that is what is needed also).
posted by bartonlong at 5:45 PM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

Food security is one of the hottest areas in international development these days. Microenterprise may not solve all the problems in development agriculture, but it certainly can make a difference. Honestly, exactly what you do in your first job is not that important. What's important is that you're out in the field somewhere seeing what development is really like and if its what you want to do. WOOF-ing will be a lot less impressive on your CV. This is the standard place to start for international development jobs.
posted by RandlePatrickMcMurphy at 6:19 PM on February 1, 2012

I have a PhD in Agricultural Economics and do some related work. I have heard good things about the career advice news letter from Blood and Milk. IPA and J-PAL are both advertising a lot of jobs right now to run evaluations many deal with micro-loans or agricultural. I would suggest reading some blogs like Chris Blattman. The Gates Foundation is in your home town. Others to look at IFPRI and Oxfam. Idealist is also a good place to look for jobs.

Feel free to message me with ?s
posted by akabobo at 6:38 PM on February 1, 2012 [2 favorites]

The US government is really starting to focus on food security through a new initiative called Feed the Future. There are lots of private sector linkages as well as more traditional USAID programs that will come out of it.

USAID also funds a long-running global initiative called FEWS-NET (Famine Early Warning System).

These are just two of loads of programs and initiatives, but good starting points.

You can get started in development with a BA, and your background sounds about right for the major USAID implementers and NGOs. Entry level work is rarely technical-- for that, you'll need a masters (nutrition or public health with a nutrition emphasis would be a good direction, as would demographics or geography-- lots of GIS mapping, etc. in food security) and significant field experience. Most people with MAs end up doing the same entry level work as the BAs. The main difference is that they don't have to go back to school. However, most development companies will pay a certain educational allowance and it's common for people to be on the "5-year plan" and pick up an MA while working.

Memail me if you want to know more, I have experience in the field and in recruiting.
posted by charmcityblues at 7:27 PM on February 1, 2012 [1 favorite]

Oh, and as for location, there are development concerns sprinkled throughout the country and of course abroad, but the DC area is where it's at in terms of density. Seattle has Gates and assorted other NGOs, there are a few companies based in the Triangle in NC, some in Boston, a few in New York, and then random ones elsewhere.

Here's a good list of USAID contractors and grantees (by size) to get you started on internship targets.
posted by charmcityblues at 7:31 PM on February 1, 2012

There are a lot of US organizations trying to fix the 2012 farm bill (and eventually the 2015 farm bill also) that probably want a good economist to get good grounding on 1. why the way US farm subsidies and agricultural policy is fucked up from an economic perspective (in addition to how much it's fucked up an ecological, nutritional, and political perspectives) or 2. what are some models and examples that will be better, and where is the research and evidence to back it up.
posted by Jon_Evil at 9:30 PM on February 1, 2012

Work on value chains for agricultural products. An example I have come across in my work is this one in Kenya which was managed by a contractor to USAID. I think looking for internships or entry level jobs within contractors to USAID is a good way in - realise you will initially be in their US office and you want to be looking to work with someone within that office who does some international technical assistance work.

If you really want to use your economics skills, you don't want to end up working in contract/project management, but want to be one of the experts doing the in-country work (this can be short or long term). However, this is your likely start point in these firms, so looking to work for someone who is also doing technical inputs in an area you are interested in as they may use you to help out on their technical work too.
posted by AnnaRat at 12:33 AM on February 2, 2012

A friend of mine is an economics major with a focus in agricultural development, and he has now done years and years of research and work for fisheries. Somehow, this is quite in demand as he has been able to move from China to Europe and now the US, doing economic analyses of fisheries. As a person already in Washington State, this may be something you can put some legwork into to do some informational interviews and find out if it would "float your boat," as it were, especially in the short-term experience-gaining getting-your-feet-wet stage.
posted by whatzit at 3:23 AM on February 2, 2012

Idealist.org is the classic place to look for non-profit work, and you may find some food security jobs there. Another good strategy is to identify organizations or companies that you admire and monitor their Employment/Jobs/HR pages for relevant openings. Maybe you'd be interested in working for the Cooperative Extension of a land-grand university?

I'm going to talk at length about farming in the US, since I know more about this aspect than the broader agricultural development piece:

The summers around college are good opportunities for farming, IMHO. If nothing else, you'll have the opportunity to think a lot about what you want to be doing with your life. (Which can be terrifying but also immensely helpful for planning your next move.)

Many of the folks I know who WWOOFed did it on a 3/4 or 1/2-time basis, usually as a springboard for traveling. This is awesome, but a somewhat more demanding alternative to WWOOFing is to undertake a farming internship/apprenticeship. You work long days but also have some structured learning opportunities like farm visits, working with the farmer(s), meetings to ask questions, readings, etc. The C.R.A.F.T program has a particularly good reputation for offering structured educational opportunities as well as an easy way to meet lots of young-ish people interested in agriculture.

Most of these apprenticeships occur on small organic-type farms that don't comprise a significant percentage of the food system, so this isn't exactly the most realistic picture of how the average head of lettuce gets to the supermarket. Still, you'll learn what the food you eat looks like when it's growing, what it's like to put in an 8-10 hour day doing manual labor, and spend a lot of time outside getting exercise (while getting minimally paid but probably housed and fed very well). You'll probably learn that it's really hard to be a farmer and make a living, even in a "developed" country like the US.

In my experience, many small-scale organic-type farmers in the US are terrible business people - anyone with a head for the business side of things could probably be useful.

A good place to look for internships: ATTRA

All of this said, spending a summer and fall farming is an unconventional choice for resume-building purposes. I'm not sure if it would actively hurt your chances down the line. It would probably come in handy for US-based service opportunities like Food Corps or other programs aimed at improving food security and nutrition domestically.

I also like The Greenhorns blog for news and updates regarding farming, mostly in the US but also policy issues here and abroad.

Good luck!
posted by brackish.line at 7:50 AM on February 2, 2012

Ditto DevEx as a good source for these sorts of jobs and also adding ReliefWeb (which despite its ostensible humanitarian focus definitely has some more development-y things too). WWOOFing is cool but seems a little orthogonal to your actual interests.
posted by naoko at 3:19 PM on February 3, 2012

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