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Jenkins Graduate

Graduate Student Spotlight: Robert Thompson

This article was originally posted on Agriculture and Resource Economics News on Aug. 31, 2020.

Robert Thompson has been actively involved in the department’s research and extension projects. Last year he contributed to the development of the Price and Basis Tool in collaboration with Nick Piggott and Heidi Schweizer. Robert generously agreed to answer questions about his path to CALS and his plans for the future.

Why did you choose NC State?

Well I actually chose NC State twice, once for my undergrad and once for my Ph.D.

For my undergrad, the main reason was my family. My older sister and brother both went to NC State. They both had great experiences which convinced me that NC State was the best place for me to go. The main advantage NC State has is that it has the resources of a big school, but it seems to have a small school feel and individual level attention within each major. With hindsight I know I made the right decision.

For my Ph.D., I considered several highly ranked agricultural economics programs. I chose NC State for several reasons. For one, I was looking for a program in which I would receive the best training in econometrics. In the agricultural economics community it is well known that NC State graduates are consistently some of the most well trained in econometrics. The great statistics department here at NC State helps with that. I was also looking for a program with a number of professors working in my area of interest. NC State has that as well. NC State really checked all of my boxes and I think I made the right choice.

Tell us about your undergraduate experience. Did you always want to be an economist?

I did not always want to be an economist. I actually started at NC State as a Zoology major. Soon after starting, I realized that it wasn’t a good fit for my interests. I grew up on a farm, and I think it took leaving agriculture to help me realize how much I enjoyed being around agriculture and people involved in agriculture. After my freshman year I transferred into Agricultural Business Management. I really felt I fit into the culture in the ARE department and found a major that fit into my interests. For a while I was planning on returning to the family farm to work when I finished my degree. After taking some economics courses in the ARE department I really became interested in economics. Economics stood out to me relative to other social sciences as a field that uses math to rigorously determine the most efficient ways to allocate scarce resources in an economy. After getting advice from professors in the ARE department I finally realized that graduate school in agricultural economics was what I needed to do. It was during one of these conversations with Dr. Barry Goodwin where I was referred to Mississippi State University where I ended up going for my master’s degree. My graduate studies at Mississippi State and ongoing studies here at NC State have really fueled my passion to be a good economist.

Tell us about your current work.

My interests are mainly focused on price risk in commodity markets. Price risk is an inherent feature of agriculture because farmers plant crops in the spring that will not be sold until the fall. It is important for farmers to be able to determine the range of fall prices that they will be exposed to in the spring when production decisions are made. Quantifying and managing that risk is important in order to ensure the longevity of businesses involved in agriculture. I think the wide range of tools available to help manage this price risk are especially fascinating. Those include futures and options markets, and the federal crop insurance program. My research aims to improve the information or the tools available to manage price risk.

I am currently working with Dr. Nick Piggott and Dr. Heidi Schweizer at NC State on a project in which we are studying feed grain markets in North Carolina. Since North Carolina has a large amount of livestock, a large amount of feed grain is needed as well. That feed grain is produced here in North Carolina and imported from domestic and international sources. One of the more visible parts of this project is the online price and basis tool just made available through the NC State extension website. This tool makes historical prices and basis in North Carolina available to the public. This is just one part of this research project that has potential to help improve the efficiency of the feed grain markets in North Carolina.

I am working on research on the relationship between price and yield for field crops as well.  Typically, the correlation between historical price and yield deviations from expectations are used as the measure of the relationship between price and yield. My research uses economic theory to show that this may not be the best way to measure that relationship and proposes an alternative. I am also working with Dr. Ardian Harri at Mississippi State on research about futures contracts. 

Tell us about an influential professor.

Dr. Barry Goodwin and Dr. Nick Piggott helped inspire me to pursue graduate school, so I owe much of my career path to them. The most influential professor I have had was my advisor at Mississippi State, Dr. Ardian Harri. He really helped me realize my full potential so far as an agricultural economist.

What are your goals while at NC State and after graduation?

I hope to develop my skills as an economist to its full potential while I am at NC State. Hopefully while I am here I produce some research that helps make markets more efficient which will make people in agriculture better off. I haven’t determined yet what my goals will be after graduation. I just hope to find a career doing research on agricultural economics, whether it be for academia, the government, or the private sector. 

What advice do you have for incoming Economics students?

I would say don’t be afraid to reach out to your professors. They are there to help and they will, if you ask for it. I think it’s also important to not take things too seriously. Since things are so ultra-competitive now it is easy to find yourself in a situation in which you are spending all of your waking time on school and work. I think it is important to find down time with friends and family and activities outside school and work.

As a graduate student, how have you been affected by the COVID – 19 pandemic?

Fortunately much of what I do can be done from home on a computer, so I have fared pretty well during COVID-19. The most difficult part is not seeing everyone from the program on a regular basis. Of course we can video call one another, but you definitely lose something over the computer relative to speaking face to face. I hope we can all get back to the office/classroom sometime soon. 

Do you know a graduate student who deserves a bit of the limelight? Email Margaret Huffman at mmhuffm2@ncsu.edu.

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