Scott Irwin is a professor and researcher in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, where he unravels agricultural economics questions.
He is a founding member of the university’s award-winning farmdoc digital product, which distributes ag marketing and management information to farmers and folks in the industry. As an ag economics Twitter celebrity, he has more than 25,000 followers with posts which can ignite debate.
Irwin hails from an Iowa farm, earned his bachelor’s degree at Iowa State University and his master’s and doctorate at Purdue University. His latest endeavor is writing a book that will take readers “Back to the Futures,” expected to be published this year.
IFT: What started your interest in agriculture and economics?
IRWIN: I grew up on a grain and livestock farm in west central Iowa, northwest of Des Moines, in the 1960s and ’70s. I was the only son, and it was assumed I would return to the farm after college. But from a young age I was fascinated by the markets. I would go with my dad to the fields and livestock and we would stop in at the local grain elevator to check the markets. I picked up his interest and it became a template for my professional life.
IFT: What has been a highlight in your career so far?
IRWIN: There are so many highlights, but one is being the director of farmdocs and being here since it started in 1999. When it started, it was a website with links to other websites. I can’t believe it was a new idea then. Its objective was simple — to talk about traditional topics including farm management, finances and crop insurance and put it all in one place. We did that for about 10 years as things changed and people got mobile phones, Google and a 24-hour news cycle. In 2011, we started farmdoc daily. The highest value of our work for society turns out to be what we write, and technology allows us to do that every day. Farmdoc is a team of people with experts who write on relevant subject matters and do the analyses. That’s the magic.
Another highlight has been the research we’ve done with more than 10,700 citings of our work in other papers and earning about $6 million in research grants.
IFT: What has been the biggest surprise about farmdoc?
IRWIN: How quickly feedback appears in our inbox. We hit the button and publish it. If they disagree with you, you hear about it right away. Sometimes they are really angry and disagree with an angle we’ve taken or they uncover an embarrassing typo or error. We have grammar police who are not shy to inform us if we are wrong. More often, we hear from groups that have a policy and our analyses might be damaging to their position. I’ve run into that with biofuel issues. I’ve learned to navigate that. Sometimes ag economics make both sides furious.
IFT: What is a professional accolade you are proud of?
IRWIN: It would be awards from the Agriculture and Applied Economics Association, of which I have had professional affiliation since the 1980s. Their annual awards are national and global and highly competitive. Farmdoc has won the award four times in the last 20 years. We have won 20% of the time. I truly believe that is a record that could never be broken. I could be wrong. I am not aware of any program that has won for more different aspects.
IFT: Describe a good work day for you.
IRWIN: My favorite days are when I can sit down alone at my computer, do research and write for eight to 10 hours. I am a people person and love engaging with the public, but at the heart, I’m a writer.
IFT: What would students be surprised to know about you?
IRWIN: I have a personal policy of bending over backwards to help a graduating senior in a bind to pass my course. A professor did me an extraordinary favor in 1980 when I was near death academically. You can find out the rest of the story in my book. So, whatever I can do, within the rules, to help a graduating student, I do. Usually I am a tough professor; this is the one exception.
IFT: Tell us a little more about this book you are writing.
IRWIN: I personalize the structure by illustrating a point with a story from my life and using technical materials to try and teach people how commodity and future markets work. I have a huge amount of fun in the telling. It was crazy growing up. I’m grateful I made it to adulthood to have the fantastic career I’ve had. And I’m grateful for what I’ve been able to study to explain how the mysteries of the markets work and how important it is.
IFT: What has changed your career the most in recent years?
IRWIN: Twitter has somewhat upended everything. You can put something out there and you get a reaction in a few seconds. In the past, publications took years to get to people. As soon as I put something up, there is engagement. People have their own opinions on economic issues and are not shy to express it. This has a rising demand of my time. It is a blessing and a curse. I am humorous, but my objective is to be responsible.
IFT: Can you give an example of a comment that ignited the Twitter community?
IRWIN: On the Nov. 30 “Market Outlook for 2022” webinar, I said my estimate for planted corn acreage in 2022 is 96 million acres. In the following days, Twitter reacted. Ag journalists, financial press and a huge number of people see it. I got a lot of feedback because my analysis is different than the consensus that called for corn acreage to go down. Even at church yesterday, a farmer mentioned it. Even for me, it’s an extreme position compared to the market consensus. It comes from my analyses. If it’s an epic fail, it will just be an epic fail.
IFT: What is the best advice you have received from a mentor?
IRWIN: If you are any good, the main problem you will have is managing 300% of the demands on 100% of your time.
Another long-retired Purdue University professor told me that if you can find a job where three days a week don’t suck, that’s a good job you should keep. I never forgot that. It’s a really realistic perspective on job satisfaction. Three-fifths of the time job satisfaction is good. My good days honestly far outnumber that criteria. I’m blessed to enjoy my job more now than in my first year. I’m 63 years old and I’m more excited about my job than I have ever been.