Alumni Profile: Mark ManfredoMark Manfredo, 1992 Fresno State Ag Business graduate

Dr. Mark Manfredo, a 1992 Fresno State agricultural business graduate, has continued to share his passion for education as Arizona State University’s Director of the Morrison School of Agribusiness and Associate Dean for the W.P. Carey School of Business.

Since arriving in Tempe in 1998, he has also been an active researcher and professor in a variety of fields such as commodity futures and options, agribusiness risk management, derivatives and volatility forecasting.

The Madera native might have been away from the Central Valley for much of the last 25 years, yet he still has plenty of vivid memories of how Fresno State and its faculty helped steer him on his career path in this recent interview.

Q: Take us through your initial connections with Fresno State and agriculture as a youth.

MM: “I grew up in Madera and graduated from Madera High School in 1988 and then started that fall at Fresno State. I didn’t grow up on a farm, but I was a 4-H member and was active in its student leadership. I raised market hogs and also worked as a vineyard farmhand for a family friend. He was our high school assistant principal, so I would get called into the office over the loud speaker not because I was in trouble, but for my work assignments on the farm. That was a formative period, and I really enjoyed it.”

MM: “I grew up a Bulldog since both my parents and my grandfather and uncle were Fresno State graduates, as well as my brother, sister, brother-in-law and sister-in-law. I went to a lot of Bulldog soccer games since I played in high school, as well as football and basketball games from an early age.”

Q: From an academic standpoint, was it easy to pick Fresno State?

MM: “I received several area agriculture-based scholarships that made the decision to study at Fresno State fairly easy, and it’s why I’m a big promoter in scholarships today. I was also a Rodman Scholarship recipient, which is a Fresno State scholarship given to a senior from every Central Valley high school. I didn’t know what I wanted to do at the time and several of my 4-H leaders suggested I try agribusiness, and it turned out to be a wonderful career path.”

Q: What do you remember from your days as a student at Fresno State?

MM: “I thoroughly enjoyed being a student at Fresno State, and really credit the faculty of the ag economics department - they were awesome. My very first class in college was agribusiness statistics with Dr. John Hagen, and I really enjoyed it. I got really excited about economics from Dr. Doug Williams and his introductory agricultural economics course. He also taught the ag marketing course, and a futures and options course. I got really hooked on the whole field of agricultural economics, and I credit him for that. Dr. Dave Smith, Dr. Dennis Nef, Dr. Juan Batista were great, as were Curt Covington, Dr. Shields and Dr. Minami. Everybody was very supportive and informative.”

Q: What other student experiences were valuable besides your classes?

MM: “I was involved with the National Agri-Marketing Association marketing team and was an officer. I was also an ag economics tutor and that also helped push me towards higher education. I was also a member of Alpha Zeta, and I enjoyed their BBQ’s as they were a great venue to meet neat alumni.”

Q: What about experience from college jobs or internships?

MM: “I interned at Wawona Packing and worked in the summers during the fresh fruit season. That was a formative experience, and I learned a lot. I primarily did inventory control, and worked with the high school kids palletizing. In the evenings I did shipping and inventory and made sure all the trucks got loaded. I worked with their sales manager at the time, Ken Boyajian. He did a lot of produce marketing and brokering, and that gave me a great appreciation for what people do in the industry. I learned a lot about the produce industry in general, and how volatile the pricing is. The Smittcamp family was really supportive, and I had the opportunity to work with various customers such as retailers and brokers, but unfortunately I was maybe their worst fork lift driver.”

Q: Describe your career path after Fresno State.

MM: “My junior year I realized that I wanted to be like my professors, so I eventually decided to pursue a master’s degree at New Mexico State. Dr. Doug Williams, who was also my academic advisor, did his master’s there and spoke highly of it.”

MM: “While receiving my ag economics master’s degree at New Mexico State, I studied the development of futures contracts for fresh fruits and vegetables based on an index of prices similar to a Dow Jones Industrial Average.”

MM: “For my Ph.D. in ag economics at the University of Illinois, I was the Gary Bielfeldt scholar in the Office for Futures and Options Research. My dissertation focused on developing and evaluating forecast models of commodity price volatility for grain and livestock markets.”

Q: Talk about your current position as an agribusiness program director at Arizona State and any recent research.

MM: “Our Arizona State agribusiness program is a specialized school within the college of business. We’re an academic unit just like the finance department, marketing department or supply chain department. We don’t have a college of agriculture like Fresno State that has departments like plant science, animal science and so on. We focus on business and economic policies in the agribusiness sector.”

MM: “A lot of what I do is as an administrator is promoting agribusiness as an important field of study for students. We’re a unique school in that we’re located in a very large metropolitan area. I have to create interest in ag business and its societal influence to a largely urban audience. That said, there are a lot of changes happening in the ag sector and a lot of it has been driven by customers and what they want from the food system. Besides that, the United Nations predicts there will be more than nine billion people on the planet by 2050 so that presents new challenges to our industry and how to feed the world.”

MM: “Although most of my current work involves administration, first and foremost I’m an educator at heart. I always joked that I’ve taken elements of all the great professors that I’ve had from Fresno State and in my master’s and doctorate programs. The people at Fresno State had a big influence on me, and I still keep my Ag Economics 1 notes on my bookshelf and still occasionally look at them, because that’s my core economic theory. No matter how crazy some of the stats or theories get, that class from 1989 (Ag Economics 1) it brings me back to the basics.”

MM: “I’m not quite as active in research now besides advising various Ph.D. students and collaborating on their research and papers. For example, I am in the process of working on a paper with a former Ph.D. student that’s an analysis of how earnings per share forecasts actually perform for publicly-traded agribusiness firms. Throughout my career, a lot or my research has focused on price forecasting for agricultural markets and looking at the performance of those forecasts. Those forecasts effect risk management strategies, while futures markets also play a key role in both forecasting commodity prices and managing commodity price risk.”

Q: Being from this area, but having a national view on the agricultural economy, how does California agriculture and business compare to other parts of the county?

MM: “It has a very different look. California agriculture is highly diverse. I spoke to an ag bankers conference in Sacramento a few years ago, and they wanted me to talk about risk management strategies for California agriculture. Identifying specific risk management strategies is hard when you have so many different types of crops (and livestock) like California does. It makes it less clear to prescribe risk management strategies compared to the typical tools and mechanisms that are routinely used in the Midwest where there are fewer crops to factor into the equation. Beyond cotton and dairy futures that have application to California producers, I talked a lot about insurance, and how multi-peril crop insurance works. There are innovations happening such as weather derivatives, and ways to think about tailoring insurance products for indemnifying unique risks, and that may be useful for California agribusinesses – that’s a hot area of potential research.”

MM: “The other thing on my mind recently is the question of how agribusiness firms use data and how they make decisions. We hear about big data becoming more prevalent in agriculture. Precision agriculture is creating so much information in the industry, and then mix that in with info collected at the point of purchase, such as grocery store scanner data, and how do firms make more informed decisions with all those data? That’s part of risk management in agriculture and business, too. How do we use that info to manage risks better and determine where risks are in the food supply chain and their potential magnitude? In some cases, we may not be able to pass off that risk with derivatives or insurance products, but rather may have to absorb those risks. So how much capital do we need to keep on reserve?”

MM: “I have also recently been involved with an executive leadership program with the Produce Marketing Association where I gave a talk encouraging participants to think about risk management strategically and proactively, instead of looking at it after the fact after something bad happens.”

Q: How often do you come back to the Central Valley, and what do you miss about the area?

MM: “We make it back quite a bit. I was there for the World Ag Expo again this year, and my parents still live in Madera, and my brother and his family and my sister and her family all live in Clovis.”

MM: “I miss the foothills and the hunting and fishing, and I like driving through the rural areas and seeing the vineyard I used to work in, which is now almonds.  ASU is a wonderful place to work, and my wife has a great career in Phoenix as well, but Madera will always be my home. I’ve also learned that Fresno is not hot compared to Phoenix which is really hot. I haven’t gotten used to that in my 20 years here.”

MM: “I went to three different universities and had wonderful experiences at each. I am a Sun Devil fan, but your undergrad institution is often where your deep loyalties gravitate towards. I still have a special place in my heart for the Bulldogs and always will.”