Interview with Mark Muller: Education & Career Guidance in Sustainable Agriculture

Interview with Mark Muller: Education & Career Guidance in Sustainable Agriculture

Mark Muller is the director of the Environment and Agriculture Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. In his work, Mr. Muller helps to promote sustainable agriculture and protecting the environment. He is also an advocate for farmers and farming communities. His diverse interests over the years have included physics and environmental engineering, but he began working in the policy field after he came to understand how integrated policy and environmental issues are.

Mr. Muller graduated from the State University of New York (SUNY) at Geneseo with a Bachelor of Arts in Physics and a minor in Mathematics. He went on to get his Master of Science in Environmental Engineering from Manhattan College. He has been with IATP for seven years, and he has also worked as a science teacher, an environmental scientist, and a water project engineer, and he interned at an organic farm. His work has taken him from New York to Guatemala and Puerto Rico.

About Mr. Muller & His Career

Please tell us about your career.

I am the director of the Environment and Agriculture Program at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy in Minneapolis. We are a nonprofit organization that promotes viable agricultural communities that protect the environment.

My background is not in policy, but environmental engineering. I spent a couple of years as an engineer, but became increasingly interested in the policy forces that were causing some of the environmental problems. And I have always had an interest in agriculture, having spent several summers working on farms and at the cooperative extension. Agriculture is the dominant land use in much of the United States, and farming and food processing contribute enormously to our economy. Agriculture is a driving force for both positive and negative changes in the environment.

What do you enjoy most about your career?

Without question, the best aspect of my career in agricultural policy is when our work contributes to positive changes. Some of the new conservation provisions in the farm bill are a result of the hard work of thousands of people with a vision for a different kind of agriculture. Being part of these successes makes it all worthwhile.

You volunteered for several months in Guatemala, working with members of the San Lucas Water Project. Please tell us about this experience, and how it influenced your career path.

I went down to Guatemala just after completing my master's degree in environmental engineering. I think all volunteers have a vision of changing the world, and I was hoping my education could help bring clean water to some of the communities surrounding San Lucas in the western highlands of Guatemala.

Of course, the real world is much more complicated. The San Lucas municipal wells did a good job of supplying the town with potable water, but the high iron and sulfur content of the water made it unpopular. So we did some work building a prototype slow sand filter, which did a great job of removing the red tint from the iron, but was much too expensive to build on a large scale.

The most rewarding part of being in Guatemala was working with some of the small rural communities on getting clean water. This mostly entailed helping to dig ditches and fix leaks. It was amazing to see how much effort people needed to put forth to obtain clean water, while we in the United States hardly give our water supply a second thought.

Spending that time in Guatemala influenced my career path considerably because I saw firsthand some of the downsides to globalization. Large food companies own most of the prime fruit-growing regions by the coast. Campesinos that own small parcels of land in the mountains receive lousy prices for their coffee beans. Few alternatives existed for Guatemalans in the rural regions to earn a decent living.

What are some of your favorite projects you've worked on, and why?

What has probably been my most interesting project has been studying Mississippi River navigation. The US Army Corps of Engineers is currently studying the feasibility of expanding several locks on the Mississippi and Illinois Rivers from 600 to 1200 feet. The reason this is being considered is because increased tow capacity allows one towboat to transport nearly 1200 feet of barges. Currently, these large tows need to lock through in two parts, sometimes causing several hours of delays during peak traffic times. I have been involved with this project because of our concern that the enormous cost of this project (over $1 billion to taxpayers) will not provide significant cost savings to farmers, and will result in continued deterioration of the Mississippi River ecosystem.

This project has been so interesting because it ties in so many different issues - international trade, farm income, agricultural transportation, river ecology, and economic forecasting. I really enjoy trying to make sense out of the different threads.

Another one of my favorite projects has been promoting "third crops". Two crops, corn and soybeans, dominate much of Upper Midwest agriculture. While this region and our farmers produce some of the highest yields for these crops in the world, it has not resulted in economic prosperity for most farmers. Prices are often below the costs of production, and the annual row crops contribute to soil erosion and excessive nutrients in water bodies.

We have found that many farmers are more than willing to explore alternative crops. We've put together a couple of workshops, presentations and a newsletter on these "third crop" opportunities. The response has been tremendous, because both the agricultural and environmental communities are looking for ways to get out of the current two crop system.

Do you feel that it's important for someone to be passionate about Sustainable Agriculture to be successful in the field?

Yes, I think it is important for anyone to find a career that they have some passion for, particularly in the nonprofit world. Salaries are lower and we don't have some of the perks that are common in a corporate atmosphere, so without some passion I think someone would start to wonder why they are doing this very quickly.

What are some of your personal and/or professional goals for the future?

I am very interested in seeing some of the ideas we have been promoting take off as small businesses. Several years ago, IATP started an organic, fair trade coffee operation, called Peace Coffee. It has struggled along, but in the past couple of years business has really taken off. It seems that a critical mass of people now understand what organic and fair trade means, and are willing to seek these products out in the marketplace. I think there are a lot more opportunities like that, from promoting locally produced food to renewable energies.

About Sustainable Agriculture

Please tell us about the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. What is the Institute doing to further the goals of Sustainable Agriculture?

IATP is involved with agriculture and trade policy at the state, national and international levels. The organization started in 1986 with a concern that the development of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (which later formed the World Trade Organization) would reduce our nation's ability to implement policies that maintain a strong agricultural economy and protect the environment. So IATP was formed in order to promote these concerns at the international levels.

In the past eight years we have recognized the importance of developing positive, alternative visions to the dominant "free trade" paradigm. We started a forestry program that is helping landowners form forestry cooperatives and obtain certification for sustainable practices. We have worked on maintaining strong standards for organic agriculture and have begun a process for defining standards for sustainable agriculture. We disseminate information on alternative cropping practices and help farmers develop markets for alternative crops. We also started an organization called Renewing the Countryside that highlights success stories of entrepreneurs finding creative ways to earn a living while protecting the environment.

You are currently the Director of the Environment & Agriculture Program at IATP. What does this position entail?

As director, the biggest change in my work life has been an increase in fundraising responsibility. The downturn in the economy in 2001 reduced the funds that foundations have available to disperse. So the biggest challenge has been finding enough funding sources to keep our program thriving. I continue to stay involved in three or four projects. Presentations and papers are another important component of the work.

What are the most rewarding, and the most challenging, aspects of your job?

I've really enjoyed the people I work with, and I always love meeting with farmers and hearing their stories. And as I mentioned before, the policy successes are very rewarding. A very challenging aspect of the job is trying to keep spirits high when those successes are not happening. Project development is also a challenge - finding the right mix of feasible short-term change, long-term vision, and funder interest.

Why is Sustainable Agriculture socially important?

Our food system impacts so much of our lives, including food safety, health, land use, culture, ecology, economic development and foreign relations. For the past 50 years we seem to have followed a path of maximizing the production of a few crops and livestock and then opening up foreign markets for our agricultural products. We are once again realizing that agriculture can provide much more than that. A healthy rural landscape is not only good for the environment, but it also can provide the basis for hunting, fishing, recreation and tourism, and many other benefits. The explosion in organic and local foods also demonstrates that consumers are looking for more out of their food system.

Education in the Field: What to Expect

Please tell us about your education experience.

My background is in science and engineering. I really had no idea what I wanted to do with those degrees, but figured it would give me a solid background for a lot of different careers. What probably had the most impact on my current career was the work I did in the summer in agriculture.

You majored in Physics as an undergrad; your Master's degree is in Environmental Engineering;, and now you're in Sustainable Agriculture. How did you choose these different fields?

I chose physics because I had no idea what I wanted to do. Because of my interest in environmental issues, I thought environmental engineering would be a logical transition. When I learned about the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy, I was very excited about potentially working there and combining my science and environmental engineering background with agriculture and policy.

Based on what you hear in the industry, what do you think are the most respected and prestigious Sustainable Agriculture schools, departments or programs?

There are several excellent agricultural schools that provide students with an opportunity to focus on sustainable agriculture. The ones that I am most familiar with are:

What kinds of degree programs can students choose that would lead to a career in Sustainable Agriculture?

Just like any industry, there are many different angles to approach sustainable agriculture. Agronomy, business management, agricultural engineering, entomology, marketing, transportation logistics, and public policy would all have practical applications in sustainable agriculture.

You often present IATP's research and policy recommendations at conferences and meetings. How would you recommend that students prepare for a job that may require public speaking?

I'm not sure if there is any other way to prepare for speaking in front of large audiences except to do it a few times. I was a high school science teacher for two years, and that definitely helped me gain some confidence. The key for me is preparation - the better I know a topic, the more comfortable I am speaking about it.

What advice can you give to students who are just starting out in the environmental field?

The environmental issues that we are currently facing seem more complex than 30 years ago. In the early 1970s, the environmental contamination was obvious and caused a public outcry. This led to the creation of the Environmental Protection Agency and the Clean Water Act, probably the most important piece of environmental legislation that exists. A regulatory approach was needed and it worked.

Now, some of the most ecologically destructive contaminants are ubiquitous, such as nutrients in water bodies and carbon dioxide in the atmosphere. We cannot simply stop farmers from fertilizing fields and people from burning fossil fuels. Effective policies are going to require the use of market forces, incentives, targeted research, and other methods of pushing our society in the right direction.

Jobs in the Field: What to Expect

What are some of the career paths a student can pursue with an education in Sustainable Agriculture?

The most obvious path is to become a farmer. But with high land values, high costs of equipment, and many lenders' uneasiness about sustainable agriculture, obtaining the capital for a farming operation can be a challenge. Many sustainable agriculture advocates have found careers in universities and nonprofits. I think there is a growing opportunity for jobs in the organics and sustainable food industry. The demand for these healthy foods is there, but we are struggling to increase access to these foods.

What is the average salary for someone in Sustainable Agriculture?

I don't really have any idea. I suspect a farm laborer might only make $15-$20,000/year, while executives at some of the very successful businesses and cooperatives like Organic Valley could be doing very well.

What kinds of experiences outside of the classroom can help prepare students for work in the field?

The best experience I had was working on farms. It is important to have those types of experiences in order to ground policy work.

The Industry

What topics are emerging as hot issues in the field of Sustainable Agriculture?

I think the tremendous interest in local and organic foods remains the hot issue. Organic agriculture has been growing at 20% a year. We need to figure out how farmers and retailers can meet that demand while remaining true to the principles of organic agriculture.

Has the popularity of the Internet affected your profession?

Farmers are finding very innovative ways of using the internet to distribute food. Our office receives a monthly email from a farm cooperative with the foods they have available and the prices. We place an order, and in a few days the food is delivered directly to our office. It's a great, low-cost method of distribution.

Consumers are now realizing that the Internet can provide an alternative to supermarket shopping. We have also used the internet to let consumers know about farmers in their local area. The Eat Well Guide has thousands of farmers and retailers of sustainable food listed.

What problems will be addressed by the industry in the next five years?

Some of the problems that I see need to be addressed:

  1. Loss of farms - the economic difficulties of farming may result in having very large, industrialized farms and a few niche farms, with little opportunity for family-sized sustainable farms.
  2. Differentiation - the organic food industry has used a certification process to differentiate itself. Sustainable agriculture does not have any certification. How do we ensure consumers that sustainably-grown foods are indeed better than conventional foods?
  3. Genetic contamination - consumers have voiced a strong preference for GMO-free [Genetically Modified Organisms] foods, yet cross-pollination is making it very difficult for sustainable farmers to remain GMO free.
  4. Food retailer consolidation - as Wal-Mart and other huge stores increasingly dominate food retail, it gets more difficult for small farmers to gain access to consumers.
  5. Farm policy breakdown - The changing world grain markets and international trade policy will lead to dramatic changes in US farm policy in the next few years. We need to make sure that sustainable agriculture can thrive in this new world.

Closing Remarks

Is there anything else you can tell us about yourself, your career, or the profession that would be interesting or helpful to others aspiring to enter and succeed in Sustainable Agriculture?

I think flexibility is one aspect of my personality that has helped me in the sometimes chaotic realm of policy development. I sometimes have to act like an engineer or an economist or a data-entry person. Knowing something about several topics is important.

EDITOR'S NOTE: For more information about the educational and career outlook for Agricultural Science majors, click here.

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