Perspectives Online

Good Investment. The scholarships supporting Melanie Smith's education were a wise economic venture for the College, the state and, likely, the world. By Terri Leith.

Melanie Smith pauses on the steps of the state Agriculture Building, where she has worked as an intern with the National Agriculture Statistics Service and assisted in NCDA&CS hurricane relief efforts.
Photo by Becky Kirkland

Early this year, Melanie Smith, senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, couldn't wait to attend the 2006 Emerging Issues Forum (EIF) at N.C. State University. After all, the annual think tank's theme, "Financing the Future," was right up the alley of the agricultural business management major, and former U.S. Treasury Secretary Paul O'Neill, an economic policy enforcer she particularly admires, was speaking there.

She was not disappointed. "The forum exposed me to the impact that the global economy has on the culture, both residential and commercial, in North Carolina," Smith says. "This conference made me see economics from a real perspective, not just numbers and graphs on a board."

Her attendance at the February EIF was sponsored by CALS Academic Programs. And much of her education at N.C. State has been funded by scholarship awards, including the T. Newton and Josephine Cook Scholarship and the Kevin Ihnen Memorial Scholarship, both merit-based awards endowed for students in the Agricultural and Resource Economics (ARE) Department; the Marvin McClam Agricultural Endowed Scholarship and the Winslow Foundation Scholarship, both awarded based on need; the Aubrey Lee Brooks Scholarship; a Carolinas-Virginia National Agri-Marketing Association (NAMA) scholarship; and assistance from the Philip Morris Agriculture and Extension Education Scholarship program, as well as UNC need-based grants.

Smith's record shows it is all money well spent.

With a GPA of 3.95 heading into spring semester, Smith is co-president of the Agribusiness/NAMA Club and has served as a CALS Ambassador. This past November she represented the College as a delegate to the 2005 Agriculture Future of America Leaders conference in Kansas City. There she participated in discussions on rural leadership, community development, financial management, global agriculture and family farming.

Also during the fall 2005 semester, through N.C. State's National Student Exchange Program, Smith took courses at the University of Kentucky. While there, she was a teaching assistant for an agricultural management class, complete with the graduate-student-type responsibilities of teaching students and grading papers.

Smith hails from Elon, where her mother works as secretary of athletics at Elon University and her stepfather is retired from textiles work. Her interest in agricultural business management began at Bartlett Yancey High School, where she was vice president of her local FFA chapter. "I did farm business management as part of FFA," she says. "I enjoyed the problem solving and critical thinking that were involved in that."

She came to N.C. State as an agricultural communications major, but switched to agricultural business management her sophomore year, thanks to "one of the more enlightening courses I've taken here, Introduction to Trade and Economics. That's where I felt - Wow! This goes well beyond my grandfather raising beef cattle 50 years ago! It sparked my interest and led to my reading many different kinds of books."

One of those books was The End of Agriculture in the American Portfolio, written by a professor at University of California-Davis, one of the places where Smith has now been accepted to graduate school. "That's what got me thinking that other countries have to have their own agricultural base to be less dependent on aid, to be able to have negotiations and to have trade," Smith says.

"To me, agriculture is a means to an end, and one 'end' is solving world hunger - to figure out a way that people who don't have the luxuries that we do can at least be put on a track so they can advance. Agriculture is the basis for that, and then you grow from there."

Impact. Cause and effect. The three-dimensional, real-world results of economic processes at the local and international levels. These are what fascinate Smith as she focuses on the global dimensions of agriculture.

"That's my interest," she says, "how international policy affects the individual farmer, how he is affected by opening borders or trade barriers or another player in the marketplace coming in. And how that affects sales at Whole Foods, Lowe's Foods, Harris Teeter. I'm intrigued by that."

She has worked closely with ARE faculty members Bob Usry, Guido van der Hoeven, and Arnie Oltmans. "They have made my experience, along with the trade and economics course," she says, adding that a course in intermediate microeconomics dispelled any doubts about her future career.

"I knew I wanted to go into this. This is too neat not to do it!"

In her spare time, she plays some tennis, but can more likely be found reading about economic policy and agricultural policy in books such as The Armchair Economist, which she just finished, and Freakonomics, which she has begun.

But spare time is sparse when you are working on a number of projects as part of a USDA internship with the National Agriculture Statistics Service (NASS). It's a job she has held since January 2005 and which she performs downtown at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services building. Her current NASS projects include a joint effort between NASS and the ARE Department: a survey to determine the extent the green industry - horticulturists, landscapers, horticultural retailers - impact service industries in the state, such as hospitals, parks and other institutions that get lawn maintenance.

For the NCDA&CS, she has assisted with a county estimates survey, breaking down agricultural production by individual North Carolina counties, and worked with Operation Brighter Day, the hurricane relief effort after the 2004 storm season.

In the latter project, Smith says, "Our job was to verify claims from people in the western N.C. areas hit by the storms. There were a lot of losses to assess from growers of Christmas trees, burley tobacco, apples - high-value products in this region."

Smith's job was to help make order out of chaos and to organize the analysis of claims according to sections of the region. "I coordinated every claim to be verified, and we got done three weeks ahead of schedule," Smith says. "Probably the most proud moment I've had was this. It's really cool to know that the $27 million was allocated to people who really needed it. It was stressful but it was worth it, and I worked with great people."

So efficient was her work in the project that her co-workers couldn't believe she was just an intern - and she now has the offer of a job at NCDA&CS after graduation.

However, she's keeping her options open. Her future may take her to the University of California-Davis or the University of Maryland - two of the top Ph.D. programs in her field, both of which have accepted her.

"I'm excited about not knowing what's going to happen, whether it's graduate school, a job offer or going overseas - just beginning something new and different," she says. "I'm up for new experiences and taking risks. When my brother died last February, I learned that life is really short, and there's so much I want to do. There's no laid-out plan. You don't have to take the beaten path. Sometimes, a little trailblazing is good for you."