When the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics in the College of Agriculture and Natural Resources was looking for someone to strengthen both its outreach and research, Ben Campbell was an ideal candidate.
Campbell, an assistant professor and extension economist, makes no secret that he is pleased to have come to UConn from his position as a horticultural economist at the Vineland Research and Innovation Centre in the Niagara Region of southern Ontario, Canada.
“I earned my BS and MS degrees at Auburn, and then went on to Texas A&M, where I earned my Ph.D. in agricultural economics. When the opportunity to go to Vineland came along, I jumped at it,” he says. “The Centre is internationally recognized for its research and technological efforts in expanding Canada’s horticulture industry.
“And then,” he continues, “when the UConn position opened up it offered a chance to join a department that already has a great reputation and is committed to getting even stronger. With the opportunity to combine my research with outreach efforts in collaboration with other departments, such as the Department of Extension, and being able to move back to the States, I knew this was the right move for me both personally and professionally.”
Department head Rigoberto Lopez is in agreement. “We are pleased to have Ben join us at a time when UConn is boosting its national prominence,” Lopez says. “He’s an outstanding and pragmatic economist, who integrates his scholarship into real world needs and policy priorities. He already has an impressive record of publications and grants that speak volumes about his abilities and potential contribution to the University and his profession.”
Campbell’s hire is part of UConn’s Faculty 500 initiative: the University is expected to add 500 professors over four years in order to strengthen its academic core and boost its standing as a top public research institution.
Campbell’s work is focused on understanding consumer behavior and helping producers maximize the success of their operations, whether they are large wholesale growers or smaller retail outlets.
He says this is an exciting time to be involved in the horticulture industry. There are the traditional concerns about how the weather affects growing seasons, how to grow food crops and decorative plants economically, and the challenges of anticipating buying trends. But there are also more contemporary issues that are influencing consumers.
“One of the things that we’re dealing with now,” Campbell says, “is deciding what we really mean when we say produce is locally grown, defining what it means to be organic, considering the use of organic versus synthetic pesticides, deciding what it means to be environmentally friendly, deciding just how fast something has to degrade before it can truly be called bio-degradable. All sorts of things that people are considering now that used not to be an issue.
“In fact,” he says, “in a survey we did while I was at Vineland, we found that the respondents who described themselves as being the most knowledgeable about some of those issues I just mentioned, turned out to be the most confused about their actual meaning. And in a way, I don’t blame them, because parameters used to define a lot of these terms haven’t really been determined. It’s up to those of us working in the horticultural industry to educate consumers so that they have accurate information to help them make informed decisions.”
The eye is quicker …
To some, agricultural economics might sound like it involves a lot of number crunching. It does. But there’s a high-tech side to the process, as well.
Whether it’s buying a basket of apples from a local farm stand, purchasing poinsettias or decorative wreaths during the holiday season, or choosing plantings for a newly landscaped yard, people are making point-of-purchase decisions that affect those in the horticulture industry on a daily basis, year-round. In order to understand what truly motivates those consumers, Campbell is taking a page from the supermarket industry and introducing newly-developed eye tracking technology to his research efforts.
“When someone looks at a display, we don’t really know what they are seeing,” Campbell says. “If you’re running a garden center, and a potential customer comes in, it’s important to know what is capturing their attention. Is it color? Price? If there’s one plant out of 50 that doesn’t look healthy, will they decide not to buy anything at all?
“This is where eye tracking can be so beneficial. By measuring minute eye movements, including duration of gaze and intensity, we can get a much better understanding of consumer behavior. And by doing that, producers can design signage and displays that appeal to people with various motives … whether the focus needs to be on price or environmental issues or the number of items in a particular display.”
Combining research and outreach
Campbell’s ‘real world’ research is something that the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics specializes in. According to Lopez, “Ben’s work crosses disciplines and he can provide the economic development component to green industries in the state that will lead to the creation of jobs in production agriculture.”
Gregory Weidemann, dean of CANR, echoes that sentiment. “There is great recognition in the greenhouse and nursery industry that there is untapped potential for growth in Connecticut that would greatly benefit from research-based information in resource economics. Ben understands both the production end and the business end of the industry. He’s a great hire who exemplifies what we are looking for in a faculty member who loves both research and direct engagement with stakeholders.”
Since he arrived on campus this past summer, Campbell has lost no time in setting up his lab and in reaching out to the state’s growers. “My job is a little bit like putting together a puzzle,” he says. “On the one hand I’m doing research, identifying markets, looking at production costs, deciding whether growing a particular crop is not only possible, but economically feasible. On the other hand I’m working with colleagues in the Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, Extension, and Plant Science, while getting out in the field and meeting people in the green industry throughout the state, helping them make important decisions that will affect their livelihood in both the short and long term.
“It’s a win/win situation,” he says, “because I get to talk about what I love to do, have fun doing it, and I know that there’s a real, practical application. It doesn’t get better than that.”