February 2008
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AU Professor Excels at Teaching the Business of Farming

By  Alvin Benn

 
Auburn University agriculture professor Deacue Fields, right, has been helping Taylor Gwaltney prepare for a career as an agriculture economist.  
Coping with business aspects of farming can be a challenge, but Deacue (pronounced DQ) Fields has been doing it with ease since the age of 14 when he got his first checkbook.

No dust collected on it, either. He quickly made a $3,000 deposit thanks to a Farm Service Youth Loan in Louisiana where he grew up.

Fields’ first banking experience provided him with enough money to buy six bred heifers and they responded by delivering six healthy calves.

Within the first year, the teenager rebuilt a herd that had been decimated during an outbreak of Brucellosis.

Recovering from that crisis was just part of Fields’ learning experience as a young farmer.

He eventually went off to college where he excelled as much in the classroom as he did on his family farm. During that period, he picked up three degrees, including a doctorate.

Today, 36-year-old Fields is an associate professor of agriculture at Auburn University where he is helping train future farm leaders in the state.

Some of his students are already out in the field, selling fertilizer and feed around the country or working at Quality Co-op stores which continue to grow in popularity in and out of farming.

 
  Ag professor Deacue Fields chats with students Ann Gulatte, left, and Meaghan Gonsalves, center.
The same can be said about "Ag-Econ" programs, as they are known, at Tuskegee University and Alabama A&M University as well as Auburn University (AU).

Fields is one of several "Ag-Econ" professors in Alabama and it’s a clear sign of just how important that aspect of farming is becoming.

Dr. Richard Guthrie, dean of the AU College of Agriculture, has been following Fields’ progress as an associate "Ag-Econ" professor and is clearly pleased by what he has seen the past few years.

"Dr. Fields is a rising star in the faculty of Auburn University," Guthrie said. "He receives excellent student evaluations for his teaching and has developed an outstanding extension program."

Fields has never had any doubts about his direction in life and Auburn University has provided a perfect venue for his career choice.

"The bottom line in what farmers do today is finishing each year with a profitable operation and that’s not always easy, given what they have to face at times," said Fields.

In the "old days," farmers basically were able to wing it and hope for the best in terms of weather, price supports and other agricultural factors.

It’s much different today and students at Alabama’s three agriculture-oriented universities are being turned out with skills unheard of not that long ago.

"One of the things we teach at Auburn is evaluating how individual farms can best use their resources," said Fields. "Change has been evident all across the state and country and those resources are becoming more important with each passing year."

He said large farming operations are becoming fewer with time, resulting in small farms "and it’s our job to help meet the needs of those farms."

"Mini-farms are popping up everywhere in Alabama and the people who run them don’t always have much of an agricultural background," he said. "That’s one reason we work hard with our students to help them."

One way to do just that is through cooperative stores who provide advice as well as supplies.

The stores are changing as rapidly as Alabama’s farming landscape, said Fields, who is the father of three young sons.

"They are moving more and more into retail business operations," he said. "Our Co-op stores are handling a much more diverse clientele and that’s why they are offering clothing, pet and fishing supplies as well as feed and fertilizer these days."

When Fields was growing up in Winnsboro, LA, members of his family depended on each other to keep the farm going and turn a profit at the end of the year.

Fields at first considered a career in animal science, but eventually switched to the business end of farming, especially after his successful start with the $3,000 loan at the age of 14.

"I came to the realization I didn’t care as much about what was inside an animal quite as much as the business that made it all possible," he said. "I wanted to make as much money as I could to keep our herd going and growing."

Those six heifers delivered four potential show steers and it wasn’t long before the herd grew back to where it once was.

Fields’ $3,000 youth loan was split into three annual payments of $1,000. He had no problem coming up with the first $1,000 and by the end of the second year, had enough money to retire the loan completely.

"We had a champion bull in our new herd and one of the calves he helped produce brought $3,000," said Fields, with a smile. "So, I had made enough to pay off the loan and still have $1,000 left over."

Before he was old enough to vote, Fields had enough experience to keep tabs on his family’s entire farm operation. He could scan a profit and loss statement with the best of them and his records were clear and to the point.

"It’s important to make sense out of recordkeeping because they lead to decisions that can impact the profitability of your farm," he said. "I know it taught me responsibility at an early age."

He and other "Ag-Econ" professors in Auburn, Tuskegee and Huntsville are turning out students with marketing skills to meet the needs of farms big and small.

"One of our primary responsibilities is to provide our students with the understanding necessary to become a successful manager," said Fields. "That might mean running a Co-op store or as a sales executive with a big territory to cover."

An "Ag-Econ" degree might also lead to careers with the Federal Land Bank, USDA or other entities involved with farming operations.

He and other AU professors occasionally visit Co-op stores around the state because he said, "My guess is at least 60 percent or more of the managers and employees have a connection with Auburn University and the two other state universities who teach agriculture economics."

Change within the "Ag-Econ" field is evident in the number of women who are enrolling in it. Fields estimates that 30 percent or more of the students are women.

"Ag-Econ" graduates can expect to make impressive starting wages, especially those who travel, he said. "Bonuses often add to that starting wage.

Responsibility in the classroom is as important as knowledge gained by studying books and listening to lectures.

"I try to convey to my students the importance of punctuality," he said. "You can tell a lot about a student by their classroom attendance and whether they are on time. If they don’t show up for class, they might not show up on time for their job."

Fields said he has seen little in the way of tardiness or indifference in his classroom. He believes "people skills" can go a long way in carving out a successful career as a Co-op manager or sales executive.

"Knowing what’s in a book is important, but that understanding needs to be supplemented by communication skills and the ability to get along with people," he said. "If you can do that, your customers are going to come back to your store and keep placing orders with your company."

Fields said most Alabama cooperative stores are multi-million dollar operations. He said $2 million in annual sales are "relatively small."

He and his father, Deacue Fields, Jr., continue to own a small farm back in Louisiana, but leaving his classroom setting will be difficult to do in the years ahead.

"My plans are to stay in academia and not to go back to the farm full-time," he said. "I’ve had an opportunity to go elsewhere to teach, but I love it here at Auburn and hope to stay here for many years."

Guthrie and others in AU supervisory positions have made it clear Fields is on his way up. The next step for him is a full professorship and it would seem that’s around the corner.

"His collaboration with faculty here as well as at Alabama A&M and Tuskegee University is reaping benefits for cooperative extension programs throughout Alabama," said Guthrie.

That’s just part of the praise for Fields, who has focused his attention on not only teaching, but turning out successful managers of cooperative stores and sales agents.

If the proof is, indeed, in the pudding, Deacue Fields is well on his way to a glittering career as a teacher and role model.

Alvin Benn is a freelance writer from Selma.