MFRE Interviews Professor Jim Vercammen


Jim grew up on a grain and cattle farm in Saskatchewan, and he spent several years managing his own farming operation. Jim began his faculty position at UBC in 1991, after completing a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics at the University of Saskatchewan, and a Ph.D. in Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley. Jim was formerly the president of the Canadian Agricultural Economics Association and co-editor of the Canadian Journal of Agricultural Economics. He is currently co-editor of the American Journal of Agricultural Economics. Jim is interested in many areas including agricultural commodity prices, risk and insurance, and agri-environmental contracts and policies.

Can you tell us about your background in agricultural economics?
I have quite a long background in agricultural economics because I grew up in a farming environment in Saskatchewan and went on to complete a B.Sc. and M.Sc. in Agricultural Economics at the University of Saskatchewan. I then went on to do a PhD in Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Berkeley before finally coming to UBC where I’m now a professor of food and resource (agricultural) economics.

Can you tell us about your work for the UBC Master in Food and Resource Economics (MFRE)?
I was one of the founding faculty members of the MFRE program, and so I’ve been very involved with the program since it’s early days, helping with its planning and design. Fortunately, because MFRE has developed such a strong management team, I’m now mainly involved with teaching and supervising Summer Graduating Projects. Amongst MFRE instructors, Dr. Rick Barichello and myself work most closely in the area of agricultural economics. My specialty lies more on agricultural futures and insurance markets, where Dr. Rick Barichello focuses more on international trade and trade policies.

Can you tell us more about futures markets and its importance to today’s issues in agriculture?
Agricultural futures markets are institutions where prices are discovered for agricultural commodities such as corn, soybeans and wheat in addition to commodities that we don’t have in North America, but are important in other parts of the world such as sugar, palm oil, coffee and cocoa. These are important markets because they coordinate world supply & demand, and fundamentally determine the levels of price volatility in times of shortages or excess demand. It is important that we understand agricultural futures markets so that we can better understand key societal issues such as how developing countries are impacted by volatile prices and how food security is impacted by the biofuel sector and institutional speculators such as hedge funds.

Can you draw a comparison between the MFRE and a Masters in Agricultural Economics?
MFRE is undoubtedly a unique program. Most of the major Canadian universities have Departments of Agricultural Economics (often renamed to reflect emerging priority areas such as “Food and Resource Economics” at UBC). I have to give credit to Dr. George Kennedy who 10 years ago felt that there was a need for a more professional approach to training graduate students who were interested in agricultural economics. He envisioned something similar to an MBA, except it should go beyond general business and it should be geared towards the agricultural, food and resource sectors. The end result of careful planning and implementation is a highly unique MFRE program that has three pillars: economics, policy and business. The current popularity of the program supports Dr. Kennedy’s vision that the MFRE program would be attractive to students who are more interested in a professional career in the global food and resource sector rather than a research-oriented career.

What are some key similarities between the MFRE and a Masters in Agricultural Economics?
The main similarities of the MFRE program and a Masters in Agricultural Economics program are that both of these programs are strongly grounded in economic principles and quantitative methods. Faculty members in both programs are generally economists and as a result applied economics is emphasized in both programs. This is important because it means that MFRE students with an undergraduate degree in economics or applied economics feel at home in our program because they are familiar with the economic concepts and they enjoy the challenge of applying their economic knowledge to an interesting set of applications in the food and resource sector. The applications often involve quantitative methods such as econometrics as applied to large and complex datasets. The MFRE program offers several quantitative methods courses and many students use quantitative methods in their summer projects. In this respect graduating MFRE students are similar to graduating Agricultural Economics students in that both have strong quantitative skills.

What would you say are some of the main differences between the MFRE and a Masters in Agricultural Economics?
The MFRE program provides students with a level of professional support that is similar to what they would receive in an MBA program, and which would not be present in an agricultural economics program The MFRE program has a strong and active management team who work hard to find ways to support the professional and academic development of students. Within the MFRE program there is strong emphasis on career development through regular seminars and workshops. In contrast, the seminars and workshops within an Agricultural Economics graduate program will have more of an academic and research focus. Similarly, the industry and government work experience which is integral to the MFRE Graduating Projects would typically not be as strongly emphasized in an agricultural economics program. In a Master of Agricultural Economics program, students start working on their research-focused thesis after a year of course work. Within the MFRE program, the main emphasis is the development of applied business and economic competencies that will be applicable in a wide range of food and resource fields.

It is also important to note that Masters and Doctoral programs of agricultural economics tend to be quite small in Canada (e.g., fewer than 5 to 10 graduate students in a cohort). In contrast, the MFRE cohort is about 30-40 students, and each cohort has students from a wide range of countries and with a wide range of backgrounds and professional work experience. Graduates from the MFRE program benefit significantly from having journeyed through the program with a relatively large and diverse cohort. The launch of our Alumni Network makes the networking process even easier and it will provide MFRE graduates with increasing opportunities to meet and interact with working professionals on diverse topic areas and in diverse geographical locations.

Would you recommend the MFRE to people interested in a Masters in Agricultural Economics?
Students who are interested in a Masters in Agricultural Economics should certainly give the MFRE program serious consideration. Although the MFRE program does not provide its graduates with the level of research experience that would be earned in an Agricultural Economics program, there are many offsetting benefits for MFRE graduates, as discussed above. In fact, the MFRE program has several recent examples of program graduates who have been admitted into PhD programs. One important offsetting benefit is that the unique combination of economics, business and policy makes the MFRE program applicable to a broader range of problems than what would be the case in a Masters of Agricultural Economics program. For all of these reasons I would encourage students who are interested in a Masters of Agricultural Economics or an MBA degree to consider the MFRE program as an attractive alternative.

Can students reach a level of specialization similar to a Masters in Agricultural Economics through the MFRE modules?
I would say yes and no. A Masters of Agricultural Economics provides students with considerable flexibility when exploring a topic and to choosing the level of specialization in a particular area. Primarily for this reason a Masters in Agricultural Economics may provide better preparation for a PhD program or for research-intensive employment. Having said that, MFRE students have the option to select courses from a range of environment, business, econometrics and policy options allowing them to either develop a specialization or broaden their knowledge base. In addition, students have the option to conduct research with a professor to complete the requirements of a graduating project, and in doing so considerable depth of a topic can also be achieved. Students value the opportunity to work closely with a professor for several months because doing so helps them understand whether research is something they wish to purse or whether they prefer to stay in the professional world.