Ag economics department marks centennial milestone

Mississippi State University President Mark E. Keenum was among dignitaries recently congratulating the university’s Department of Agricultural Economics as alumni, faculty, staff and students celebrated 100 years of excellence.

Keenum said the department, from which he earned undergraduate, master’s and doctoral degrees, was the section of the university that not only had prepared him well for a future in government and academic leadership, but also prepared thousands of other students who walked the halls of the Lloyd-Ricks-Watson building over the decades.

“It’s had a tremendous impact on our state agricultural economy,” Keenum said. He added that one of his biggest honors was when he was given the opportunity to join the ag economics faculty, and that years later in his role as president, he still is extremely proud of his title of professor within the department.

Keenum said agricultural economics offers a very practical education and degree that helps young people prepare to be successful in a wide array of fields, including business, marketing, commodity and financial trading, banking, law and governmental service, as well as international trade, scientific research, and extension and outreach careers. He noted the department has had a substantial influence on national public policy.

“I would dare say, at least in the past 35 years, MSU has had an impact on U.S. farm policy that is unrivaled with any other academic institution in the nation,” he said.

Most recently, Keith Coble, an MSU Giles Distinguished Professor of Agricultural Economics, served as minority economist for the senate agriculture committee and assisted Sen. Thad Cochran in his work on the 2014 farm bill conference committee.

Former department head John Lee, who served in that role from 1993-2001, said agricultural economics is a very important science because it can be applied in so many areas. He described the field as a “decision science,” which helps people make financial and economic decisions.
“If you know how to make those decisions in economics, you can use those same principles in other fields of life,” he said.

Lee said agricultural economics started out helping farmers to do financial planning for their farms, including farm management and budgeting.

Current department head Steve Turner, who joined MSU in 2003, said the department applies economics to bring value not only to the university, but to the state of Mississippi through the analysis of various commodities. Annual crop budgets prepared by the department help producers make sound economic and investment decisions, he said. The data also is useful to lending agencies, he noted.

Faculty conduct research projects with implications for catfish, row crops and other commodities. The department also has been nationally recognized for strengths in computational analysis, linear programming, public policy analysis, and risk analysis.

The recent expansion of environmental economics prepares students to balance the demand for natural resources with the need to preserve the environment. Research in this area lends itself to regional and national study, and MSU economists are leading experts in analyzing environmental questions.

Keenum said he is proud of what the department has done over the many years and what it is continuing to do to prepare the next generation of leaders who will address some very critical issues in the future.

“Tremendous challenges are going to be confronting this generation,” he said, explaining that food security is a growing issue as the world’s population continues to increase and outlining how the research capabilities of the land-grant institution are well suited to address issues related to every aspect of the food chain.

Keenum said that food and agriculture policy in the coming decades will have huge implications for national security. He said the contributions of agricultural economists cannot be understated as a key component for solving issues of global importance, among them the efficient allocation of resources using basic economic theory, he said.

Turner said that through the years, the department has benefited from an atmosphere of collegiality, with faculty and staff working together as a team toward common goals. Hiring and retaining top faculty has been a longtime administrative focus with superior teaching a constant objective.

For more on the history of the ag economics department, visit the centennial website at


By Allison Matthews