New faculty profile: Andrew Stevens studies economic decision-making in the food supply chain

Andrew Stevens joined the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics as an assistant professor in August 2019.

Where did you grow up?
I grew up in a suburb of the Twin Cities (Minneapolis & St. Paul) in Minnesota. After spending a decade living in other places throughout the country, I am extremely excited to be back in the Upper Midwest. Although my extended family is pleased to have me so close to home, they are slightly less enthused that I am now a Badger.

What is your educational/professional background?
I earned my undergraduate degree in economics from the University of Chicago and my M.S. and Ph.D. degrees in agricultural and resource economics from the University of California, Berkeley. After graduate school, I worked for two years as an assistant professor of agricultural economics at Mississippi State University in Starkville, MS.

How did you get into your field of research?
I was drawn to economics early in my college years. Although I was fairly good at math and enjoyed science, I wanted to study questions about people, society, and public policy; that is, issues that show up in the newspaper and get discussed at dinner tables. Economics proved to be a good fit for my skills and interests. Quickly, however, I learned that economics was far too broad for me to master it all. I chose to specialize in agricultural and natural resource economics because I was – and continue to be – drawn to the unique opportunities and challenges of the field. For example, agriculture has fundamentally altered the Earth’s landscapes and ecosystems. What are the unintended effects (externalities) of different agricultural practices, technologies, or policies? Similarly, how does agriculture’s unique market structure affect how farmers and ranchers are able to manage economic risk when they produce undifferentiated goods? The research questions are endless.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
Broadly, I aim to understand (1) how agricultural producers and consumers make decisions, (2) what factors affect these decisions, and (3) how aggregated individual decisions contribute to landscape- or economy-scale patterns. With a proper understanding of these three things, we can design informed public policy and predict possible outcomes in an uncertain future. The specific settings I study are diverse and varied, ranging from Peruvian demand for quinoa to blueberry pickers’ labor productivity, to Midwestern farmers’ crop choices in response to new ethanol refineries. Much of my current work involves studying how producers make decisions about crop choice or land use while accounting for the dynamics of decision making over time.

What attracted you to UW-Madison?
UW-Madison is a world-class research university with an excellent faculty, a top-five department in agricultural and applied economics, and a collaborative Midwestern sensibility. There are few other universities in the world that have such breadth and depth of excellence across so many fields of research. Combine this academic exceptionalism with Madison’s quality of life and you get a one-of-a-kind institution. Getting hired as a professor here feels like winning the lottery.

What was your first visit to campus like?
My first visit to campus was in January 2019 for an on-campus interview for my current position. After living in Mississippi for nearly two years, I was hoping for an authentic Midwestern winter experience and Madison did not disappoint. My visit was cold and snowy, reminding me of the winters of my childhood. I got to pull out my old winter coat and show my future colleagues that I could handle Wisconsin winters.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
If you want to understand why things are the way they are, think about the decisions people make. Who makes the decisions? What do they care about? What are the incentives they face? And how do their decisions affect others’ decisions? If we focus on these questions, we can begin to explain some of the more puzzling aspects of the world around us. (For example: the fact that low-income households in the US have such high rates of obesity.) And when we appreciate the importance of understanding decisions, we can better analyze both the intended and unintended effects of public policy.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
My (not-so-prolific) twitter account is @agronoeconomist.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Absolutely! On the one hand, my work in agricultural economics has immediate implications for many of Wisconsin’s tens of thousands of farmers managing roughly 15 million acres. (Not to mention all the Wisconsinites who buy food each week at the grocery store.) On the other hand, Wisconsin producers are an invaluable source of expertise and experience to inform my own research agenda. The Wisconsin Idea affirms the best parts of what it means to be an academic at a public institution.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
In the 1950s and 60s, counties in the Upper Midwest (including Wisconsin) where one or more Lutheran congregations merged together were quicker to start using agricultural fertilizer than counties that didn’t experience a congregational merger. This is suggestive evidence that larger social networks (in this case, more fellow farmers in your congregation on Sunday) make it easier to share information and adopt new technologies (like fertilizer).

What are your hobbies/other interests?
Running, biking, cross-country skiing, choral singing, traveling, and enjoying the Madison food scene.