Of all the agriculture faculties in Canada, Alberta’s is unique in having a department of rural economy, but just what does that term mean?
Brent Swallow can explain. The new chair of the department in the faculty of agriculture, life and environmental sciences at the University of Alberta says rural economists study the impact of the activities of forestry, and agriculture and look at how policies and activities can affect the environment and economics.
Swallow, originally from Moosomin, Saskatchewan, started his position as chair of the department in July, 2009, and brings considerable field experience to his new post. He obtained bachelor and master’s degrees in agricultural economics at the University of Saskatchewan before his interest in the role of agricultural development in poverty-stricken regions led him to an agricultural marketing project in Lesotho. He later completed his PhD in environmental and development economics at the University of Wisconsin.
In 1991, Swallow went to Kenya to work for several different organizations doing environmental and agricultural research in livestock and agro-forestry. One of his main interests is determining ways that agriculture can be practised in poverty-stricken areas without undermining the environment.
Swallow’s background and interests complement the goals and direction of his department, which has three missions – teaching, research and service. The 50 courses offered focus on studying the impacts and connection between agriculture, the environment and economics. The department has about 20 faculty members, six support staff and 100 graduate students.
Rural economy courses are included as part of many undergraduate level degrees in the general faculty.
“We have professors who have lots of specialty areas. By sampling the different skills of the different professors, people can get a diverse background, or if they want to specialize, they can hone in and specialize,” says Swallow.
The University of Alberta’s graduate level program in rural economy is the largest in Canada. “It’s very vibrant because of the way we work,” said Swallow. “Our research is what we do with the graduate students. Students are attracted here from Alberta, across Canada and from elsewhere in the world because of the reputation of our faculty.”
Most students in the undergraduate and graduate program are pursuing studies in agricultural and resource economics. Degrees offered include a bachelor of science in environment and conservation sciences, as well as degrees in agricultural business management, forestry or forest business management.
Swallow says the faculty is internationally recognized for its work on the connection between agriculture and the environment. Examples of research include agriculture’s impact on water resources, the impact of various industries on wetlands, and research on climate change.
Students may specialize in different areas within the department. Research may involve looking at different land uses, economic and environmental impacts and the potential of different market systems.
Other professors in the department of rural economy study food demand and food systems. Areas of research in this department are varied and will include subjects such as country-of-origin labelling or food scares and consumer behaviour. Much of the research done involves looking at the impacts of policies and their intended and unintended consequences on agriculture, the environment and forestry.
“One of the things we get into in our field is the different ways of understanding farmers’ and consumers’ responses to things,” says Swallow.