MEET SCOTT IRWINScott Irwin says his fascination with markets and risk management began long before he had any formal education in the area of agricultural economics.
“Sunday dinners at my grandparents’ house always involved boisterous discussions about markets or ag policy,” Irwin said. “When I was 11 or 12, I started trailing along with my dad when he’d go to the elevator to look at the price quotes on the old yellow ticker tape machines.”
Irwin attended economic conferences and Extension meetings with his father and grandmother when he was in high school, and he still has the paper he wrote on the cattle futures market for his senior FFA project in writing. Ironically, Tom Hieronymus, an early mainstay in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics (ACE) at the University of Illinois, was his primary source.
Today, Irwin is a professor in the Department of ACE at the U of I, and the team leader of the farmdoc project. He holds the Laurence J. Norton Chair of Agricultural Marketing.
Irwin grew up on a grain and livestock farm in west central Iowa, and farmed with his father and grandfather.
“I was very fortunate,” Irwin said, “because I also had an unusual intellectual mentor. My grandmother was an extraordinary woman who received a college degree in the 1920’s, which was pretty uncommon in those days. As I got older, it was clear I was a ‘special project’ for her. She gave me a subscription to Harper’s Magazine for my 16th birthday, and later, when I was visiting graduate schools, my grandmother went with me.”
Irwin chose Purdue University, where he received both his M.S. and Ph.D. in agricultural economics. While attending Purdue, he said there was another group that had tremendous influence on him.
“I was befriended by a group of very renowned and ‘argumentative’ retired ag economists,” said Irwin. “The group included Earl Butz [Secretary of Agriculture under Presidents Nixon and Ford], Don Paarlberg [Economic Advisor to Presidents Eisenhower and Ford], Richard Kohls [former Dean of Agriculture at Purdue] and J. Carroll Bottum. They liked nothing better than to get green, smart-aleck grad students who were full of theory and show them that they still had something to learn. It was an intense experience debating with them, but I really bonded with those guys.”
After receiving his Ph.D. in 1985, Irwin joined the faculty of the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at Ohio State. He first came to the U of I in 1993, as a Visiting Scholar in the Office for Futures and Options Research. In 1997, Irwin joined the faculty of the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics.
Two years later, Irwin began working with several other professors in the Department who had individual projects in different areas of ag economics. Together they developed an Extension program that eventually became the farmdoc project. Irwin has been team leader of the project since its inception. In 2002 farmdoc was recognized as the premier Extension program in the nation.
“I continue to be amazed at the reach and impact of farmdoc,” Irwin said. “All we’ve really done is put an attractive and easy-to-use wrapper around the work that we do. As we like to say - this is still your father’s Extension program - just good solid economic analysis related to the management, marketing and finance decisions that farmers have to make.”
Irwin also helped develop AgMAS, a program that evaluates the pricing performance of market advisory services. “AgMAS plays a key role in bringing more realistic expectations to farmers about what they can expect through marketing activities – in particular, market advisory services,” Irwin noted.
In more recent months, Irwin has entered the national debate on the role of speculators in commodity futures markets. “I felt there was a vacuum in the public debate about this question, from what I call a rational economic analysis standpoint,” said Irwin, “and I made a conscious decision to throw myself into the public debate.
“My views are fairly orthodox for economists,” Irwin continued, “which are that the impact of speculation is, at worst, marginal in terms of harming price movements, and that fundamental factors explain the run-up and run-down in commodity prices.”
Although orthodox, his views are also controversial, and as a result, his research has been featured in an article published in the business section of the New York Times. Irwin has written an op-ed piece for the Times, testified before a congressional committee and given countless media interviews.
“At this stage of my professional career,” said Irwin, “I feel I have certain public service responsibilities, and I take those very seriously. My goal is to provide some leadership in my profession and improve understanding of the behavior of agricultural futures prices.”
Irwin is an avid reader, sports fan, and very involved in his church. He and his wife Kim have four children. Their two older children are Matt, a senior at the University of Iowa, and Kate, a junior at Evangel University in Springfield, Missouri.
A series of unusual circumstances brought the Irwin’s their two younger children. “I always tell people to be careful what they pray for,” Irwin said with a smile. “I didn’t want to just ‘slide’ into retirement, I wanted to do something big. Well, our involvement in the lives of these two little children gave us the opportunity to be foster parents. Then certain events transpired that put us on the adoption track, and now we have our own little youth group. Stacey is six and Jayvon is three. They’re our next big adventure.”
“I did the math,” he concluded, “and I realized that when Jayvon graduates from high school, we will have had children in the house for almost 40 years. Now my older kids have started calling me ‘Father Abraham.’”
To learn more about Scott Irwin, visit his homepage here.
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