Posted on May 24, 2012 by Naomi Finseth

from By Michel Proulx It was a controversial beginning but 50 years on, the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology is firmly part of the fabric of the University of Alberta and the agricultural and natural resource management communities. During the 1950s, with just one professor devoting research and teaching to agricultural economics …


By Michel Proulx

It was a controversial beginning but 50 years on, the Department of Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology is firmly part of the fabric of the University of Alberta and the agricultural and natural resource management communities.

During the 1950s, with just one professor devoting research and teaching to agricultural economics out of the Department of Political Economy, the farming community wasn’t satisfied with the level of economics research applied to the agricultural sector. After all, the farming community was very close to the Faculty of Agriculture, which had been founded in 1915 with a mandate to relate its research to practical production problems as well as the social and economic problems of farm people. By all accounts, the faculty had remained true to its mandate and had a close relationship with farmers. The farming community also had another issue with the university: no research was being conducted on farm management. By the late 1950s, demand for a dedicated agricultural economics program was strong.

In 1960, the Faculty of Agriculture hired Gordon Ball from Iowa State University as a professor of farm management. He immediately made a proposal to transfer all agricultural economics courses taught in the Department of Political Economy to the Faculty of Agriculture. The university rejected the proposal and Ball resigned in protest, returning to Iowa. The farming community was outraged. It protested and eventually persuaded the university to reverse its decision and create a new department.

Thus was founded what was originally called the Department of Agricultural Economics and Farm Management in the Faculty of Agriculture. Established in 1961-62, the department evolved, expanding its research and teaching areas, and went through a few name changes.

Dr. Travis W. Manning was hired out of the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City to build up the best new department that he could to fulfill the needs of the agricultural community. Manning was department chair from 1962-1974 and remained a professor in the department until his retirement in 1983.

Research conducted in the new department was clearly more applied, covering topics such as livestock marketing practices, economic benefit analyses of irrigation districts, fertilizer practices and crop yields.

One notable early achievement was exposing hog marketing practices that were costly to producers and consumers. Recommendations made by faculty members to rectify the situation were adopted by the Alberta Hog Marketing Board. Another achievement was uncovering the practices of a major grocery chain, which priced its items higher in lower-income neighbourhoods. The federal government undertook action under the Combines Investigation Act and obtained a consent order against the food retailer.

In 1969, the department underwent its first name change, becoming the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology, to better reflect the emerging field of rural sociology in the program.

The department also found its physical home during its first decade. Initially, the department was in a series of ring houses on the northwest corner of campus, but it moved towards the end of the decade to the 5th floor of the General Services Building, where it continues to be located today.

In the 70s and 80s, the department grew to encompass a wider range of agricultural issues. With roots firmly planted in production economics at the farm level, it began to concern itself more with agricultural policy and supply management issues.

“There was real debate with issues related to supply management in poultry, eggs, dairy and the role of Canadian Wheat Board, for example,” explains the current chair of the department, Brent Swallow. “The department was a reasoned force within those debates.”

He points specifically to the work of Michele Veeman, who would later become chair of the department, and Terry Veeman, as they were at the forefront of promoting efficiency gains from using economic instruments for water allocation, for example.

In 1975, the department changed its name to Rural Economy, which it kept until 2011.

Over the past 30 years the department has also become one of the premier places in Canada and the world with respect to environmental economics, specifically studying people’s behaviour and how they value different attributes of the environment. Vic Adamowicz is a Distinguished University Professor, who is recognized as one of the world’s top environmental economists.

In the 90s and 2000s, the department continued to expand, especially in food marketing, consumption, and safety issues. Led by Ellen Goddard, the department conducts a lot of work on the determinants of food consumption, including food labelling, country of origin labelling, food safety and the like.

The 1990s and 2000s was also a time of expansion of environmental sociology. The department now has five professors working in this area, three of whom are jointly appointed with other departments. Research focuses on the ways that households and communities respond to economic and ecological change.

As the department evolved through the decades, it increasingly linked its research on issues of farm production, supply management, food marketing, environmental economics and rural sociology to policy.

“We’re part of the innovation policy in Alberta,” says Swallow, who is quick to add the department has been able to do this because of some relationships it has forged with other stakeholders, whether it be other universities, government departments and industry.

In 2011, the department changed its name again, this time to Resource Economics and Environmental Sociology. “It better signals our applied nature and the range of issues we address,” explained Swallow.

As for the future, the department is well-positioned, says Swallow, as it turns its attention to the new agricultural and environmental challenges the world faces with higher food prices, the globalization of big agricultural firms and new economic models.

“The Canadian Wheat Board is no more, Viterra is being broken up and sold off and I expect there will be more similar changes in the foreseeable future that will bring a new set of challenges,” said Swallow. “The next 20 years should be very interesting. There will be a new era of agricultural policy debate, with supply chain management, international trade, food safety and the links between agriculture and the environment at the centre of the debate.”

The department is celebrating its first 50 years with a two-day celebration beginning with a keynote address by Globe and Mail national affairs columnist Jeffrey Simpson on Friday, May 25, at the Telus Centre at 4:30.

On Saturday, three consecutive sessions will take place, highlighting developments and future challenges in the fields of agricultural economics, environmental sociology and resource and environmental economics. Each session will have three speakers. Of the nine in total, seven are alumni of the department.

For more information on the celebration, visit the REES website’s 50th anniversary section.


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