Q&A with JunJie Wu

JunJie Wu joined the department in September 2021 as Professor and Department Head. Prior to this appointment, he was a faculty member at Oregon State University and the Emery N. Castle Endowed Chair in Resource and Rural Economics and Director of the Center for Agricultural and Environmental Policy. Wu gives his thoughts on our state, urbanization and more, below.

Describe your first impression of North Carolina in 3 words.

Beautiful, energetic, and courteous are the three words that come to mind.  I thought Oregon was green and beautiful, with a lot of trees. But North Carolina is as green and beautiful as Oregon, with a charming landscape. The economy is growing, full of energy everywhere. People here are so nice and polite. So, courteous is another word that came into my mind. If I could add more one more word it would be hot. North Carolina summers are indeed hot and humid, compared with Oregon summers.

What does moving a research program from one coast to another entail?

It implies a major shift in my career direction. Before joining NC State, I was trying to be a good teacher and scholar myself. But now I have to focus on being a good academic leader, helping others to become outstanding teachers and scholars. I intend to provide the best support I canto faculty, staff and students so that they can realize their career aspirations. I also need to focus on the department’s academic programs by working with faculty and staff to make sure that our students get the best education they deserve. Finally, I would like to work with our staff to make sure that all the departmental functions and paperwork are done properly and on time. Fostering a supporting community within the department is another of my priorities.

What are you researching now?

I have several ongoing projects. In a projected funded by NIFA, I’m working with a former student, a climatologist and a plant scientist to try to understand how water scarcity, climate risk, and extreme weather events such as heat and drought affect agricultural producers’ land use and irrigation decisions on the U.S. West Coast. What’s unique about this project is that we are able to compile a risk profile for several major crops on the West Coast based on historical data on causes of crop losses and then construct variables to measure water, climate, and weather risks for growing those crops.  We then try to link the data with USDA’s Farm and Ranch Irrigation Surveys to analyze how different risk factors affect farmers’ land use and irrigation decisions, including water use and irrigation technology adoption decisions. Our goal is to use the model to analyze how alternative water policies and climate change scenarios will affect cropping patterns and irrigation practices on the west coast.

Another project I am working on focuses on open space conservation in U.S. urban areas. If you look at the data, we will find that there is a lot of variation in the amount of open space across the urban areas. Two natural questions are: What determines the amount of open space in an urban area? Is the existing amount socially optimal?  I am working on a paper that addresses these questions with a couple of colleagues.

North Carolina is a huge agricultural producer and its cities are growing. How do you see the state changing over the next few decades?

I did a little research on big trends and broad forces affecting agriculture in North Carolina when I applied for the position. One thing that jumped out is that North Carolina’s population has been growing much faster than the rest of the country. Since 1970, the total population in North Carolina has more than doubled, compared with only a 60% increase in the rest of the county. One major consequence of the rapid population increase was that a lot of farmland has been converted to development. NC has lost more than a quarter of its cropland since the early 1980s. In addition, the total developed area has been growing much faster than the total population, which implies increasing suburbanization as well as urbanization.

One important implication of the changing landscape is growing demand on agriculture. Nowadays, agriculture is expected to produce not only safe and reliable food, but also ecosystem services, animal welfare, and renewable energy.

For example, agriculture is the largest land and water user, and most water originates from rural places. With increasing urbanization, rural-urban collaboration for water resource management will become a big issue in North Carolina and many other parts of the country.

With increasing urbanization we will also likely see a growing rural-urban divide as well as a growing rural-urban interdependency. In some rural areas, urbanization or suburbanization is the primary driver of economic growth while in other areas urbanization has encroached on rural communities to such an extent that rural communities themselves have been lost.

Finally, if you ask farmers what the biggest challenge is for them today many of them would likely say government regulation. They view regulation as not only encroaching upon their right to farm, but also their livelihood.

So, agriculture in North Carolina will face a lot of challenges with growing population and growing urbanization and suburbanization.

These challenges also create opportunities for farmers and agricultural communities. For example, urbanization will increase opportunities to grow high-value crops and to market them directly to urban consumers. These challenges will also create opportunities for ARE – to conduct cutting-edge research and develop extension programs to help farmers to turn challenges into opportunities and to deliver an innovative academic program that will educate the next generation of agricultural leaders and natural resource managers for North Carolina and beyond.

What advice do you have for the graduate student just getting started in the field of agricultural economics?

I was invited to give a short talk in the AAEA Mentoring Workshop earlier this month. I was asked to address the question of how to develop an effective research program in an agricultural and applied economics department. In that talk I discussed some practices that many good scholars tend to follow. I think these practices can also help our graduate students who are just getting started. The first practice I highly recommend is to work on topics that genuinely interest you. I often told my Ph.D. students that there is nothing more important than finding a topic that you are passionate about. If you choose a research topic that you do not really care about your life would be miserable, for at least a few years. From the time you choose a topic to the time you finish your dissertation, to the time you get your first paper published, that often takes several years. If you are not really interested in the topic I do not think you could have a very happy academic life.

The second practice I would like to mention, which also seems obvious, but most of us often fail to follow is to work on things that really matter. I think the real challenge is not to find an important topic, but to find a topic that you have something new and important to say about it.

Then you may say, how do I know if the thing I’m working on is new. The most efficient way to find this out is to talk to someone who has work in the area for a while and who knows the literature well. You could also read the most recent survey articles or some working papers in the area or go to google scholar and do a quick search by typing in relevant keywords. I often do all the three things before embarking on a new research topic.

Now, suppose you have found a research topic that you have something new to say about it. The next question you might want to ask yourself is: is the new thing I am working on important?  If you are working on a theoretical paper and if you could offer a new model or insights that will radically change people’s understanding of the problem, that would be a clear indication of importance. But that often is too high a bar for most people to pass. If you could not pass that bar at least you should offer some new insights that would help the reader better understand the problem, such as the scope and the nature of the problem and possible ways to address them.

If it’s an empirical paper, adding a new variable to a regression model and showing that it is statistically significant, or offering a new identification strategy or finding a smart instrument, in my view, is not going to make the cut. However, if you could show that the things you are working on would help decision-makers make better decisions, which would lead to substantial societal benefits, that would be a clear indication of importance. But again, in most cases, that bar would be too high. But at least your results could help us better understand the scope or impact of the problem you are trying to assess.

When I start a research project, I often ask myself: Why should people care? Why should they pay attention to my research? As an applied economist, I often give priority to questions raised by producers or policymakers themselves. To me, that clearly indicates that the problem is relevant.

Just to give you an example, when I first started at Oregon State I attended a meeting organized by a local Farm Service Agency. The main topic discussed in the meeting is how to encourage landowners to adopt conservation practices to protect some endangered salmon species in the Pacific Northwest. In the meeting, some of the farmers repeatedly said that even if I do my best, if my neighbors do not do anything, my effort will have little impact. This got me thinking, is there a threshold in conservation effort? If there is, what would be the consequence if a conservation program does not take that into account.

To address this question, I wrote a research proposal with some of colleagues at OSU and submitted it to NIFA.  To my surprise, it got funded. This gave me a chance to work with a group of natural scientists, including a biologist and a hydrologist. In the project we were able to demonstrate both conceptually and empirically that ignoring hydrological and biological thresholds could lead to a substantial loss in conservation benefits.  Conversely, if a conservation program takes hydrological and biological thresholds in its design it could dramatically improve its efficiency.

I mention this project here, not only because it led to several high-quality publications, but also because it led to improvements in public policy. In part due to our effort, Oregon’s Conservation Reserve Enhancement Program included a cumulative impact bonus to encourages landowners to work together. The U.S. Secretary of Agriculture called the bonus idea “innovative.”

The third practice I would like to mention briefly is to exercise good craftsmanship when writing your papers. To me, craftsmanship is perhaps one of the most important keys to publication. No matter how important the topic your paper addresses, if it is badly written and no one cares about reading it, then it would have little impact. I served as an AJAE editor for a few years. This gave me a chance to observe many leading scholars. One common characteristic I observed among them is that in addition to working on big issues, they all strive to practice good craftsmanship in both writing and analysis. No paper is perfect, but a good scholar is always trying to write one.