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AAEA Trust Profile: Hope Michelson

AAEA Trust Profile is a new bi-monthly series following up with AAEA Trust sponsored scholarship, fellowship and grant winners. This issue features Hope Michelson, an assistant professor at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Hope received the Chester O. McCorkle, Jr. Scholarship in 2007 while attending Cornell University. The McCorkle Scholarship supports applied research by a graduate student on economic issues relating to agriculture. Hope’s research proposal, which won her the scholarship, collected and analyzed a unique household-level data set essential to study the welfare effects over time of a local and international marketing revolution on Nicaraguan small farmer operations.

How did winning the scholarship help accomplish your research goals?

The Chester O. McCorkle Scholarship, along with a Social Science Research Council International Dissertation Research Fellowship and a USAID Basis AMA CRSP, funded my dissertation research in Nicaragua. The study, part of a broader research project undertaken in collaboration with researchers at Michigan State University and the Universidad Centroamericana, analyzed the dynamics of small farmers’ participation in Nicaraguan supermarket supply chains. I also estimated the effects of participation on small farmers’ wealth – measured by changes in their productive asset portfolios relative to comparison non-participant farmers.

For the study, we identified and surveyed all Nicaraguan farmers who had sold horticulture to Walmart or the domestic supermarket, La Colonia, between 2000 and 2008. As a comparison group, we resurveyed an existing nationally-representative panel of farmers confined to areas where I had determined supermarkets had been sourcing. I also spent a lot of time gathering price data from markets and cooperatives so that we could analyze the supermarket and traditional market price distributions.

I spent one year living in Nicaragua; many months that year I spent on the road in pickup trucks with teams of enumerators tracking down and surveying farmers. The support from AAEA was critical to completing this large-scale and logistically intensive research project.

My dissertation won the Honorable Mention for Outstanding Doctoral Dissertation of the Year from the AAEA in 2011 and the research has been published in World Development  and the American Journal of Agricultural Economics.

What are you researching/working on now?

My research has two primary threads, both concerned with the relationships between agriculture, poverty, and market institutions in the developing world. One theme of my work continues to focus on the evolving relationships between new large-scale market systems for agricultural products and small farmers in emerging economies. I have extended my dissertation work and now have a large project studying the structure of Walmart’s supply chains in China and the implications for small farmer participation. The work is in collaboration with University of California, Davis and The Center for Chinese Agricultural Policy in Beijing.

A second thread of my research uses prices, household data, government production data, and satellite imagery to study small farmer fertilizer use and food security. With soil scientists at Columbia’s Agriculture and Food Security Center (where I just completed a post-doctoral fellowship), I am studying which economically viable policies can bring about a sustainable increase in sub-Saharan Africa’s soil fertility. We are also studying the small farmer investment and yield effects of a new innovation that uses rapid in-the-field soil testing to improve soil information and management recommendations to farmers in Tanzania.

What made you decide to pursue agricultural economics?

I studied History and English Literature in college. Even so, through my volunteer work in Washington, DC on problems of social justice and education equity and through my History and Policy courses, I had begun to understand the special power of economic vocabulary and methodology. However, though I had always been a strong math student and had taken a wide range of classes in undergraduate, I didn’t enroll in my first economics course until my senior year of college when I decided to apply for a MS in agricultural economics. Agricultural economics appealed to me as a direct and urgent place to work, given my interests in poverty and development.

What do you hope to research/work on in the future?

On January 15th of this year, I started a new position as Assistant Professor in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. At the University of Illinois, I will continue to build a body of research based in quantitative analysis, fieldwork and interdisciplinary partnerships to gain insights into strategies for reducing poverty and hunger in the developing world. I see agricultural economics as a way of understanding political and ethical problems of immediate relevance: chronic poverty, the challenges of development, and the impact of a rapidly globalizing economy on local privations and freedoms.