An agricultural economist specializes in understanding the economic activity within agricultural markets. They research statistics and data pertaining to the agricultural industry and project possible patterns and trends within the economy. Most hold a graduate degree in economics, but there are specific degrees that focus on agricultural economics specifically.
What does an agricultural economist do?

Agricultural economists examine data and statistics to identify trends and make predictions for the agricultural market. These professionals can work in a variety of agricultural sectors and often perform their own research.

What should I study?

Education in this field is variable, but includes a formal education in an undergraduate degree, and typically a master’s degree.

As agricultural economists better determine market indicators like farm income and food prices, they study many areas, such as:

  • Natural resource management
  • Agricultural policy
  • Food science
  • Farm credit
  • Agricultural marketing systems
  • Economics
  • Commodity exchanges
Nandipha Mbizana, lecturer of agribusiness and economics at Elsenberg Agricultural Training Institute. Photo: Supplied

Nandipha Mbizana, lecturer of agribusiness and economics at Elsenberg Agricultural Training Institute. Photo: Supplied

Research the universities you want to go to and see if they have agricultural economics as a degree. If not, you might find an economics degree with agricultural economics as an option, or you can specify your economics studies when you pursue your honours or masters.

“Students find agricultural economics difficult in the beginning,” says Nandipha Mbizana, lecturer of agribusiness and economics at Elsenberg Agricultural Training Institute. “But at the end they understand it much better.”

“They don’t get exposed to this industry often. Farmers are production orientated and this might be their first introduction to economics terminology.”

Mbizana’s advice would be to take economics in high school if you have the option and are interested in economics as a career, because it will help you be more familiar with the concepts when you encounter them in university.

So, what is the difference between business management and economics?

Business management focuses on the administration, planning production and overall management strategies of running a business.

Economics looks at the finer details of enterprise budgets, economic reports and focuses a lot more on research and finding ways to apply your research on a bigger scale. For example, an agricultural economist might do research on how inflation, policy and interest impacts agricultural businesses in South Africa.

Is this the career for you?

Let’s have a look at the life of an agricultural economist: O’Brien Jonathan Pêrel – Senior agricultural economist at Western Cape Department of Agriculture.

O’Brien didn’t plan on becoming an economist, but his interest in economics always lingered at the back of his mind.  In high school he didn’t have economics as a subject choice, but rather chose business studies because “it was really interesting to study different enterprises and industries,” he says.

O’Brien Jonathan Pêrel, senior agricultural economist at Western Cape department of agriculture. Photo: Dona van Eeden

O’Brien Jonathan Pêrel, senior agricultural economist at Western Cape department of agriculture. Photo: Dona van Eeden

After high school he signed up for a BAgri in Animal Production at Elsenberg Agricultural Training Institute which he followed up with an Honours and a Masters in Agricultural Management at Stellenbosch University. One of his subjects, economics 444, again reminded him of his interest in the subject.

He just found that agricultural economics is the perfect career for him, so when he got a job in it he found it very enjoyable and has no plans on leaving.

On the skills side, O’Brien speaks on very multidisciplinary skills needed for the role.

“You should have good interpersonal experience,” O’Brien says, because you work with people a lot and collaborate across many sectors. “You have to be a good researcher, pay attention to detail, enjoy working with statistics, be open to learning new things, adaptable to changing environments, focused and willing to go the extra mile.”

Further information

There are many opportunities in agricultural economics, be it in academia, government, production, business, retail, NGOs or even international companies. There are a wide range of specialities to go into.

Food for Mzansi has a weekly Farmer’s Inside Track podcast where they talk to a senior manager of agribusiness at Standard Bank. The topics covered in these sessions can give you some insight on what you would be working with if you follow of career in agricultural economics. There are also many career overviews done on the Food for Mzansi site, where you can see what paths agricultural economists have taken to get where they are and what they are currently busy with.