Food dollar nonsense

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I am constantly reminding myself that I need to write more blog posts, but it seems that something else always distracts from the writing.  Maybe it is just not having a topic that I wanted to write about.  Well, as luck would have it, yesterday I saw a tweet that stoked the fire.

This is one of the kinds of things that really gets me shaking my head. I mean, what’s the point of it? Yes, a loaf of bread in Canada can run anywhere from $1.99 to $4.59, but does that mean a bushel of wheat should be worth $270?

What this tweet misses is the fact that when I want to make a sandwich, I do not want to have to go and find a wheat farmer who has high quality wheat so I can make my own bread. I also assume said farmer doesn’t want to sell me just enough wheat so I can make a single loaf of bread as I do not have the capacity to make 100 loaves at the time. Either way, now that I have all this wheat, I need to mill it into flour. I do not own such equipment, nor do I want to.

What we often forget when we see food dollar comments, is the price for a good (in this case a loaf of bread) includes much more than just the raw input. It includes the costs of coordinating the value chain so a loaf of bread can be in my grocery store when I want to buy one. It includes the costs (and normal profits) for several firms within the channel, including the grain handlers, the millers, the bakers, the transporters, and the grocery stores. So a farmer gets $0.07 for a loaf of bread, which all things considered, seems pretty close. In order for firms to receive (earn) higher prices for their inputs, they need to transform these inputs into usable forms for the consumer and get the inputs to where the consumer wants them. Then, and possibly only then, will farmers receive more than $0.07 for a loaf of bread.

University Committees, Degrees, and Branding

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As a faculty member, I have the privilege to sit on a number of department and college committees. One of the more interesting committees I sit on is the undergraduate programs committee for our college. In one of the meetings, the topic of residency and degrees came up. In terms of this discussion, residency means how many credits were earned at a specific institution. The issue before the committee is, how many credits should a student have to earn from a particular institution before they earn a degree from that institution. Is it 30 credits? 60 credits? Does it even matter? There was a lively discussion about this, and I’m not sure how the decision will go, but here are my thoughts on it.

First, it is a complex issue. One one hand, we want to encourage students from other institutions to come to our university and take our courses, and establishing higher residency requirements may limit the number of students who transfer to, and eventually graduate from our institution. On the other hand, the residency requirement acts as a form of ‘quality control’. By having some minimum requirement, we are able to gather more information about the quality of the student before they walk away with a degree with our university’s name on it. At its heart, I see this as a branding issue, and as a quality control issue. To illustrate my concern, I used a manufacturing example in the meeting. Would Company A feel comfortable branding a product where 75% of the process was conducted at Company B? What if it was 50%? While this is not a perfect analogy (as these companies have established strict guidelines as to what has to happen to satisfy the terms of the contract) the issue is the same. Without any way to monitor quality at the first institution (where a bulk of the education takes place), the risk falls entirely on the company with the brand. In that case, I think gathering more information (in terms of credits) is probably the sound strategy, but maybe I am missing something.

If you have any thoughts about this, I would be happy to hear them.

Conferencing — WERA edition

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I am sitting in the Las Vegas airport waiting to board my flight to Minneapolis having just left the last session of the Western Education and Research Activities conference that was held at the lovely Excalibur Hotel and Casino.  One participant traveled all the way from Nigeria to attend the conference.  It was great to see both old and new faces.  

For this group, I serve as the vice-chair, so I helped organize the conference along with the other members of the executive committee.  This year’s meeting featured presentations that focused on agribusiness teaching and learning outcomes as well as presentations on risk management in agri-food chains, global agri-food chains, and entrepreneurship and marketing.We had a pretty good turn out of 24 members, but we would always like a few more.  We had a nice discussion during out business meeting about how to increase participation for future meetings.  I think we got some good ideas and I am excited to try them out for the next meeting, which will be held in Santa Clara, CA next year.  

Next week I head to Atlanta for the International Food and Agribusiness Management Association meetings where I will be presenting some research from one of my graduate students.  Now if I could just finalize the presentation….

Student Feedback

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Like any other business, it is important for faculty to gather information from our customers to see how well we are doing. In business world, this is done through comment cards, social media, or other methods such as surveys. At the University of Saskatchewan, we have the SEEQ (Student Evaluation of Educational Quality) questionnaire. We have recently moved to an online format of evaluation, and yesterday I received an email stating that my results were in. It is always with a bit of nervousness that I open these as I want to see if my idea of how the course went matches the students’ perception.

I think the best part of the student evaluations are the comments as these are actually what the students want to say, not the answer to a question they might not care about. It is fun to get together with other teachers and discuss the comments. One of my favorites was from a grad student friend of mine who was told his shoes were too squeaky. This year, my comments were pretty positive, but there was some room for improvement in providing timely feedback and making the class a little different from another class.

As these are anonymous, I think I can post some of the better (funnier) comments. I chose not to post the comments that said I was terrible.


Student: I had a wonderful time this semester attending this class. Eric is full of humor which kept the class light and I only fell asleep during class once the entire semester! :)

Student: Even the 5 page essay was interesting to research and didn’t feel like a form of punishment.

Student: Previous students said this class was easy but apparently that changed… with no warning.. until the mid-term.

And finally, one that I will have to show the folks in charge of tenure and promotion…

Student: One of the best lecturers I have encountered so far. Even though he is currently an assistant professor, he deserves to be a professor. Excellent at making a boring topic more interesting.

Conference Season

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Well, the school year is finally over for me. Exams have been marked and grades are submitted, so now I get to do what I want to do. I am currently working on a few research projects and will be presenting some of the findings at various conferences this summer.

The first conference I am attending is the Alberta Agricultural Economics Association meetings which are being held in Red Deer, Alberta.  This is my first go-round as an invited speaker, so that is new. At these meetings, I will be presenting some of my research on agricultural innovation.  I have never attended this conference, so I am excited to see the presentations and meet some new people.  The world of agricultural economics is a small one, and even more so when it is limited to a specific region within a specific country.  For those interested, a copy of my slides are available here 

After the Red Deer meetings, I have a few weeks at Saskatoon before on the road to Las Vegas and Atlanta for two other meetings. Then off to Warsaw and Washington, DC in July and August. Should be a fun summer!

Experiential Learning at the University of Saskatchewan

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This past week I was in Kansas City, MO where the University of Saskatchewan CAMA team was competing in the National Agricultural Marketing Association marketing plan competition.  Sadly, our team did not make it out of the preliminary rounds, but I think the students have a lot of positives they can take away from the competition.  While I am sure not all of this has fully sunk in for the students as they are busy juggling final exams, internships and job offers, a social life, and various extra-curricular activities, hopefully it will soon.  One thing I wanted to convey to the students is that while the outcome was not what we hoped for when we boarded the plane on Tuesday, the experiences and connections that you have gained should more than make up for the results.

Furthermore, from a strategic employment perspective there were 12 students that worked hard to get the team ready for competition.  Contrast this with the roughly 500 students in the College of Agriculture and Bioresources.  As an employer, I would rather hire a student that has actually ‘done’ something than one that just learned about it in class.  While we offer a few courses with experiential learning components, I would like to increase the level of experiential learning that we offer here in my department as students move through the program (and to partner with other institutions to foster greater cross pollination of ideas).  Our world is becoming increasingly globalized and I think our educational system should as well.  Implementing this vision effectively is an idea for another post.

Almost famous

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As I mentioned in an earlier post, it is spring break here at the U of S and a few of our faculty are away from Saskatoon.  As my luck would have it, yesterday I received an email from the graduate secretary asking if I would like to conduct an interview with one of the local TV stations on an Ag Canada report that stated that farmers were going to be eating rainbow stew as farm incomes are projected to be higher in Canada for the next 5-10 years.  You can find the segment with my interview here

I tried to temper the analysis by stating that these are aggregate numbers and individual returns may vary while demand is increasing due to structural changes such as population growth that farmers in SK have little control over (at least in a global sense).  A conversation with a former colleague at Illinois also got me thinking that the farmland market in Saskatchewan is not nearly as crazy as the one in the Corn Belt.   The economist in me thinks that something has going to happen if farm incomes continue to increase.  I think ultimately, even with greater production risk in the Prairies, costs for land (both opportunity and real) and increased energy and input costs will likely erode some of the projected gains in farm incomes.