Monday, October 24, 2022

Member Blog: David Zilberman

On the Contribution of Extension: In memory of Tim Wallace

David Zilberman, professor, agriculture and resource economics | October 18, 2022

When I arrived in Berkeley for my Ph.D. about 50 years ago (1973, before the Yom Kippur War), I learned that the department of Agricultural Economics, which I joined, had several faculty members who were extension specialists. Their job has been to do real applied research and to provide information and education to adults (regular faculty teach aspiring adults), namely farm advisors, government officials, farmers, NGO activists, and businessmen. One of the specialists, George Goldman, introduced me to my dissertation topic, Animal Waste in Southern California, and linked me to a farm advisor (the late Shirl Bishop) who provided me with data and introduced me to the relevant actors. Another specialist was Tim Wallace, who passed away a year ago and whose life was celebrated this September. Tim was a compelling character. He served on the President’s council of economic advisors and was California’s Secretary of Agriculture. He was an outdoorsman (canoed down the Mississippi) who felt comfortable as an insider in centers of power. He often held strong opinions and could be argumentative, but he always listened and sometimes changed his mind.

I was a graduate student at Berkeley and was hired by the department to become a professor in the field of Agricultural Policy. My main area of focus was Environmental Economics, and my dissertation was on Animal Waste. I knew Tim as an interesting extension specialist with a lot of charisma and a capacity to ask tough questions, but we never had a long conversation. Tim was the Agricultural Policy specialist in the department, and I am not sure he was very happy with the new hire. One day, he invited me to his office and asked me: “So you are the guy that got the Ag-Policy position?”

I said, “Yes,” and he asked, “what do you know about Ag-Policy?” I responded, “Not very much – I was working on a farm in Israel, and my dissertation was on animal waste, but before I came here, I was a system analyst and realized that if you want, you can learn any new topic by reading the literature and mostly by speaking with people.” I also said, “I know that Gordon (Rausser) wants me to teach a class in Ag-Policy and will give me all the incentives (both sticks and carrots) to stay in the field.” Then he inquired, “What is your research plan?” I told him that in our department, “We have Rausser, Just, and Schmidt who are very well-known in ag-policy, so I will try to develop a slightly different emphasis, studying technology adoption, farmers’ behavior under risk, and especially the link between ag and the environment.”

Furthermore, “I am sure that over time I will cover other topics as well.” Then I asked, “Do you have any advice?” And he opened up, “Agricultural economics is not only about scholarship, but about social change – making the world a better place.” I wondered, “It seems relatively easy to write papers, but how can I have an impact?” And then he said, “People know that Professors are smart, but to have an impact, they need to trust you. Farmers need to appreciate what you do and that you care about them. This is especially important since you were not born in California (which I found true – if you don’t look like a cowboy, you must work harder to be accepted). It would be great if you go and visit different farm regions, meet with extension specialists, get to know some farmers, ask questions that show that you care, and try to understand what’s happening. The fact that you are friendly with farmers doesn’t mean that you must tell them what they want to hear – tell it as you see it, and they will appreciate it if it comes from someone that cares.” I took his advice to heart. I realized that being new in the US, I needed to try and try to learn about California agriculture, and indeed during my first five years on the faculty, I traveled all over the state, taking any opportunity I had. I got to know people and learned about problems that later contributed to the relevance and value of my research.

Tim was the Secretary of Agriculture of California and, indeed, trusted and well-connected. He was able to act as an incredible moderator and deal with conflicting objectives very well. He emphasized one thing – agricultural development and environmental quality and sustainability can go hand in hand. The moment you believe it is either one or the other, you lose your effectiveness; people have to eat, and people like to have a healthy environment. Farmers are businessmen, but many like to fish and enjoy the environment. In the early 1990s, there was a proposition called Big Green that suggested we eliminate the use of pesticides in California. We did some studies that showed this would be very costly. Of course, there are misuses of pesticides, but eliminating them would be a big mistake. So, we tried to organize a conference, and Tim was the moderator. There were people with different perspectives, and he could keep them calm and manage several conversations.

In the end, the late Tom Graff – an environmental leader in the state, told us that “Gosh, you guys have a point.” In the 1990s, several of us (David Sunding, Dick Howitt, Doug Parker, and Michael Hanemann) came up with a proposal to develop an electronic water trading market in the central valley. We needed to meet with the water districts and environmental groups to agree on how to implement it. Tim was essential in making sure that the discussion was civil and that we were able to sell the idea. In the early 1990s, there was a proposal to divert water rights from farmers to the environment in California. Of course, farmers didn’t like it, and they approached Tim to help. He recommended that they approach me and others at the university, even though we do a similar analysis for the EPA and some environmental groups. We wrote several reports that were crucial in introducing trading as part of a water reform legislation called the Central Valley Project Improvement Act.

Over time, our department lost its extension specialists; they got older and were not replaced. So, for a while, we had almost no one (I am a 20% extension specialist). Losing them was a real blow as having extension specialists was crucial to be involved in California’s agriculture and natural resource problem. I especially owed them a lot. As I mentioned, I was introduced to my dissertation research on animal waste by George Goldman. Jerry Siebert was crucial in building our linkages with the California Department of Food and Agriculture and starting a large research program on pesticides in the department that resulted in several dissertations. Kirby Moulton initiated a research project on the pricing of the qualities of peaches and their implications for peach production. This research led to Doug Parker’s dissertation, and Doug later became an outstanding extension specialist. He and David Sunding were crucial in obtaining resources to study water and drainage issues in California. I am still working on a study on the value of California irrigation management systems initiated by Parker. Losing the extension prevents especially young faculty members from receiving the knowledge and inspiration to address relevant problems and the capacity to obtain resources for it. Fortunately for us, there is hope. We have a wonderful new extension specialist, Ellen Bruno, who is already serving as a linkage between our new faculty and California agriculture. Tim is gone, but I will treasure his memory and his contributions. Excellent professors of extension are essential for combining rigor and relevance, the two dimensions of academic excellence. I hope and believe that our extension program will grow and will lead our department to make greater contributions to California and global agriculture and natural resources.

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