A CALS “Bridge to Business” Turns 20

Each January, the Renk Agribusiness Institute hosts the Wisconsin Ag Outlook Forum and releases the Status of Wisconsin Agriculture report—a sure sign for the agricultural business community that the new year is here. And each fall sees the arrival of a new cohort of Renk Scholars, undergraduates selected

for a scholarship program emphasizing leadership in contemporary agricultural issues and agribusiness.

The Renk Agribusiness Institute was founded 20 years ago to coordinate the university’s agribusiness teaching, research and outreach activities, provide financial assistance to students pursuing agribusiness degrees and offer professional development programs for agribusiness executives. The institute originated with a gift from the Renk family of Sun Prairie, founders of the Renk Seed Company. The institute is housed in the Department of Agricultural and Applied Economics (AAE) and draws on the expertise of faculty from across campus.

This year the institute has a new director: AAE professor Paul Mitchell, who is eager to increase the visibility and reputation of agriculture and agribusiness in CALS and UW and build more connections between the campus and agribusinesses in the state and region.

“Whether by offering educational and training opportunities for agribusiness professionals,
or exploring new options to facilitate connections between campus and the state’s ag industry, the institute can play an important role to help maintain and enhance the innovation capacity of Wisconsin agribusiness,” Mitchell says.

The Renk Scholars program offers a great way to help fuel growth, notes Mitchell.

“I inherited a solid student program from my predecessors, with a thriving agribusiness management club and a number of undergraduates participating in national student competitions,” says Mitchell. “Through the high-caliber work of the students, I hope to build the program’s reputation and visibility on campus and especially in the private sector as the number of Renk alums continues to grow. Through these experiences, we’re establishing cohorts among the students that generate synergies—and lifelong connections for both students and campus to capitalize on.”

Mitchell, along with colleagues on campus and partners around the state, a committed board of advisors and new associate director Jeremy Beach, is taking time this year to consider exactly how the institute should grow.

“There’s plenty of work to do and we are still in the visioning stages,” says Mitchell. “I’ve been looking more carefully at data analytics or ‘big data’ as a possible focus for the institute as it builds on the strengths of the department and college, but we have many other ideas on the table as well.”

Click here for more information on the Renk Agribusiness Institute and the Renk Scholars Program

Paul Mitchell, Agricultural and Applied Economics, takes the helm at the Renk Agribusiness Institute.
Photo by Ben Vincent, UW-Madison CALS

In Vietnam, Mopeds Help Teach Economics

When Corbett Grainger wanted to teach Vietnamese students the basics of environmental economics, he had no problem getting them motivated. He just talked about the motor scooters jamming the roads of Hanoi.

The bikes make for great local color, he says—it’s not unusual to see one carrying an entire family or livestock or large pieces of furniture. But it’s also not unusual to see people wearing masks to filter out the fumes from tens of thousands of scooters.

So students were very curious about potential market-based solutions to road congestion, such as taxes and tolls, says Grainger, a CALS assistant professor of agricultural and applied economics.

“The environment in Vietnam is kind of in a state of disrepair, particularly in terms of air and water quality,” he says. “Their economy is booming but it comes at a cost, and the younger people realize that.”

Grainger is one of a number of CALS and other UW–Madison faculty members who recently made the 8,000-mile trip to help the Hanoi University of Agriculture (HUA) set up an undergraduate program in agricultural business management.

Not all are ag economists. Al Gunther of life sciences communication went to teach business communication. Randy Dunham of the UW School of Business taught a course in management. Other offerings have included accounting, international trade, co-ops and contracts.

The plan is for the Wisconsin professors to teach the first class of students enrolled in the program. Hanoi faculty sit in on the lectures so that they can teach subsequent classes on their own.

While course content is much the same as in Madison, some adaptations are needed. For one thing, the class is condensed into three or four weeks. And even though the courses are taught in English—constituting the first English-language classes held at HUA—not everything “translates” perfectly because Vietnamese students bring a different set of skills and knowledge to the classroom.

They’re ahead of their U.S. counterparts in math but behind in computers, says CALS ag economist Paul Mitchell. Most of them didn’t know how to use a spreadsheet, he says. And when Mitchell talked about his research on markets for certified organic potatoes, first he had to explain organic certification.

But the CALS team found the Vietnamese students to be unsurpassed in one respect—they were intensely eager to learn. “After class, they all lined up with questions,” says Grainger. “When I held office hours in the afternoon, the whole class would show up.”