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New faculty profile: Chuck Nicholson focuses on dairy markets and policy, food systems modeling

Nicholson on a climb of Mt. Meru in Tanzania, where he and his family lived for three years prior to the pandemic.

Chuck Nicholson joined the UW–Madison faculty in January 2022 as an associate professor in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics. Funding for this dairy economics-focused position comes from the Dairy Innovation Hub, which has supported over a dozen faculty positions so far at UW–Madison, UW–Platteville and UW–River Falls.

What is your hometown? Where did you grow up?
My father was a career Marine Corps officer, so I lived in multiple places in the U.S. growing up. We spent the most time in the lovely city of San Diego, so I consider it my hometown.

What is your educational/professional background, including your previous position?
I have more than 20 years working as an agricultural economist, business analyst and food system modeler. Most recently, prior to joining UW, I worked at three business schools:  the Nijmegen School of Management (Netherlands), Cornell University and Penn State University.

How did you get into your field of research?
I studied economics as an undergraduate student at UC Davis and got interested in agriculture through experience as a small livestock extension agent with Peace Corps in sub-Saharan Africa. In my PhD program at Cornell I had the opportunity to work with a top agricultural economist who focused on dairy markets and policy issues and that inspired me to research those ever since. I’ve since added expertise in food system modeling and supply chains through teaching and industry engagement.

What are the main goals of your current research program?
My position at UW is funded by the Dairy Innovation Hub, so my main goals are to apply the tools of economics, business and systems modeling to provide information relevant to decision making by dairy stakeholders in Wisconsin and at the national level. I often work with agricultural scientists to inform the research questions and use of methods. I am currently working on analysis of Covid-19 impacts on dairy consumption, changing patterns of spatial organization of the U.S. dairy industry, the evolution of global dairy markets and analysis of dairy-specific agricultural policy issues. I also collaborate with interdisciplinary teams doing research on food security in low-income countries and controlled-environment agriculture (greenhouses, vertical farms).

What attracted you to UW–Madison?
UW–Madison is one of the few universities with a critical mass in dairy-related research, and the Dairy Innovation Hub is strengthening that with additional faculty hires. The opportunity to contribute to this growing effort was a big attraction! Also, Madison has many great resources, and my home Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics has lots of great people.

What was your first visit to campus like?
I had previously visited UW–Madison multiple times going back nearly 20 years, but one of my favorite memories from a visit a few years ago is of a warm and sunny July afternoon on the Terrace talking with collaborators and one of my PhD students who was at UW for a summer course in Vietnamese.

What’s one thing you hope students who take a class with you will come away with?
I teach a course on food systems and supply chains, so I want students to have an increased appreciation for the complexity of how we get our food and its broader economic, business, social and environmental impacts. I also have overarching goals that they can think critically, use evidence to support decisions, work well in teams and present effectively.

Do you share your expertise and experiences with the public through social media? If so, which channels do you use?
I don’t much use major social media channels (so far) but do disseminate research in written documents and videos through a dedicated website (dairymarkets.org), and through interviews with reporters. I have also used interactive platforms with modeling tools (e.g., https://exchange.iseesystems.com/public/besir-oz/growth-management-programme-online-tool/index.html#page1 ) to engage with stakeholder groups.

Do you feel your work relates in any way to the Wisconsin Idea? If so, please describe how.
Some of my dairy-focused work is conducted in collaboration with Wisconsin organizations or input from state government agencies. Often my goal is research that informs decision making and its implications for citizens of Wisconsin. I hope through my instruction to create new opportunities for students that can allow them to make a contribution to Wisconsin’s social and economic well-being.

What’s something interesting about your area of expertise you can share that will make us sound smarter at parties?
Saying “Did you know that the price dairy farmers receive for milk depends on its use—in one of four different classes?” probably wouldn’t be it! Maybe from systems modeling “Positive feedback is one of the most powerful forces in the universe”?

What are your hobbies and other interests?
I enjoy running (especially on trails), traveling internationally, brewing beer and reading history. I hope to get more into kayaking and cross-country skiing now that I’m here!