Larry Van Tassell

Larry Van Tassell

Growing up in rural Utah, Larry Van Tassell, head, Department of Agricultural Economics never pictured himself earning a doctoral degree. “Where I grew up, I remember my dad talking about the nutty professors,” he said. “I think there was a little question in his mind when I decided to go that route.” 

Van Tassell was raised on a farm on the Utah-Wyoming border. Growing up, he worked on his family’s dairy operation and was an FFA member. He attended Brigham Young University and earned a degree in animal science. One of the highlights of his time in college was an internship at U&I Sugar, working with their beef cattle operation. After the internship, Van Tassell returned to college intending to pursue a career in ranch management.

During his internship, a mentor suggested that a degree in agribusiness or agricultural economics was necessary for a successful ranch management career. Van Tassell took his mentor’s advice and worked on a master’s in agribusiness while he worked as the herdsman of the BYU cattle herd.

Photo of Larry Van Tassell

He later earned a Ph.D. in agricultural economics from Texas A&M University. “When it came to the Ph.D., I had a choice between animal science and agricultural economics,” Van Tassell said. “I thought a degree in ag econ with the marketing, finance, production background would serve me well.”

Although he began his Ph.D. with the intent of returning to the industry, Van Tassell accepted a position in the University of Tennessee Department of Agricultural Economics. He also worked at the University of Wyoming in a research and teaching role in range and livestock economics. Prior to coming to Nebraska, Van Tassell was the department head in the Department of Agricultural Economics and Rural Sociology at the University of Idaho.

The main thing is you can do it if you just stick with it, give it your best shot and keep some kind of balance in life, you can make things happen.

Van Tassell has been in Nebraska since August 2010. When he arrived, the department had 19 faculty members and, due to retirements, went as low as 16. Currently, there are 25 faculty members in the department. “We’ve been fortunate to receive a number of new positions,” said Van Tassell. “The new faculty infuse an excitement and enthusiasm. All of our hires have been home runs. They’ve brought a lot to the university and the state with their talents and skills.”

As Van Tassell has traveled across the state, one of the things that intrigued him was how much people love the University of Nebraska-Lincoln. He said they look to the university for assistance and information. He has also found Nebraskans open and willing to be involved with the department. He noted several have served on an advisory board and helped improve programs in a variety of ways.

The department's commodity trading room, now in its third year, is an example of how the department has benefited from that willingness to help. Agribusinesses and commodity organizations donated over $700,000 for the room’s development and operation. Students have benefited from the expanded curriculum and other groups are able to participate in activities which use the room and its software. “The commodity trading room has given us something few universities have,” noted Van Tassell.

In addition to new hires in the commodity marketing program, the department has been able to add expertise in a number of areas. The additional faculty have strengthened the department’s effort in the economics and viability of natural resources, water, and conservation activities. The department’s extension presence has also been increased and allowed the department to provide new programs in marketing, financial analysis, and farm programs. A new behavioral economics program gives researchers the opportunity to see how people react and behave to different economic choices. Examples of research in that area include water pricing and risk management preferences. Faculty are also now working on interdisciplinary programs with animal science and agronomy. Private funding was used to help hire a professor of cooperatives and a professor of banking and finance. These new programs complement the department’s strength in industrial organization.

“Economics is an integrative science,” said Van Tassell. “We are able to bring different disciplines together.” Economics can help answer profitability, sustainability, and feasibility questions.

That's what economics brings to the table. We can unite a lot of disciplines in looking at a number of new alternatives.

In addition to new research and outreach programs, new hires bring a wealth of expertise to the classroom. As an example, Van Tassell notes that the department is now able to offer five classes and an internship in commodity marketing.

When asked if he had any advice for students, Van Tassell encouraged students not to get caught up in grades but instead focus on learning. He noted sometimes students will avoid the difficult class because taking it might mean a lot of hard work or because they’re worried they will not get a good grade. Van Tassell also shared advice from a survey of alumni. They noted the importance of developing social capital through internships and participation in clubs and activities.

We get so concerned with grades that we forget what we’re here for, and that’s to learn.