Daniel Sumner is Director of the University of California Agricultural Issues Center, and the Frank H. Buck Jr. Distinguished Professor, Department of Agricultural and Resource Economics, University of California, Davis, where he has been since 1993. Before taking part in a Zócalo/UCLA Anderson event titled “What Will Trump’s Trade Wars Do to the U.S. Economy?” at the National Center for the Preservation of Democracy in downtown Los Angeles, he spoke in the green room about greased pigs, family roots, and weird Midwestern weather.
You grew up in the Suisun Valley in rural Solano County. What did you learn from doing Future Farmers of America and 4-H activities as a kid?
In my case it was mostly just good fun, and I made a bunch of money because I was showing livestock at the county fair. But there was a set of leadership things that we do that I found really valuable. But mostly it was just fun.
Did you have a favorite animal that you had to take care of?
I was doing it for the money, to tell you the truth.
But I know that it can be an emotional experience for young kids, to raise an animal.
I’ll give you an example. At the Cow Palace in San Francisco I was in a greased pig contest when I was about eight years old. You put a couple of pigs and 20 little, tiny kids in a ring like a rodeo ring, and you say, ‘Go catch a pig!’ But you grease all the pigs up with axle grease. Anyway, I caught a pig. The prize at the Cow Palace was you got a pair of jeans. At the Dixon May Fair you got to keep the pig—which we ate a few months later! So, was I emotionally attached to that pig? Well, not really, evidently.
Well, maybe it wasn’t quite like Charlotte’s Web.
But let me say, there would be calves that I kept track of, and there was an old cow that happened to be smaller than all the other cows, who was sort of interesting. My father, who was a cowboy from Texas, had this particular cow, he decided he’d keep her out there [in pasture] and she’d die a natural death. What did it cost him—500 bucks or a thousand bucks or something. But, you know, it’s not all the money. But in my case I was trying to make a living.
You’ve lived in a bunch of places: D.C., North Carolina, Chicago, Lansing, San Luis Obispo, Santa Monica. Did you have a favorite?
You know, I think I’m insensitive. Because I’d never seen snow fall out of the sky; I knew the theory, that it didn’t grow up like grass. But I didn’t know it [first-hand] until I got to Lansing. But I tell you, in Lansing I was annoyed but not because of the snow. But the fact that it rained in the summer, it was really disorientating. ‘What do you mean, We can’t have a picnic because it might rain!' It’s just weird.
Was there a teacher or professor who really influenced you?
There’s a guy I always still talk about, and it wasn’t Milton Friedman, who I had for microeconomics, and it wasn’t Gary Becker, who was the most famous economist of his generation. But it was a guy named John Umbeck. He was so influential to me because he loved economics. He just knew this stuff, and he instilled that in the handful of us that were serious about it.
If you could time-travel to any point in the past or future, where would you go?
It’d be easy to say the future, just because we’re all curious. So that’s my first thought, is 2050, to see how my grandkids are doing. But frankly I would also love to go back to 1850 and see what my relatives were up to. My family, like most, were poor white trash, scratching the ground, trying to make a living.
This was in Texas?
Well, they got to Texas; I think it was in Tennessee. My family basically never had anything, lost what they did have in each state, moving on, until they got to West Texas. My grandfather lost the cattle ranch in the Depression, ended up in California. If we hadn’t bumped into the ocean, I suppose we’d still be moving. So it’s just fascinating to me how just average, run-of-the-mill people lived a few hundred years ago, partly because I do agriculture and almost all of them were farmers.
How do you pass on your own appreciation of agriculture to your children and grandchildren?
I have a daughter who’s just graduating from college this year, and she grew up in a little town. She was around people talking about agriculture, but my father had Alzheimer’s disease by the time she met him. She’d go out to where the farm was, but there was nothing much there. But a couple of times she has said, ‘I’m going to write a paper about some agricultural topic.’ Or one of her friends will call me up and say that my daughter said I could talk to them about GMO foods or things. So she’s got a little appreciation for agricultural issues.
What are you reading now for pleasure?
I’m reading Factfulness: Ten Reasons We’re Wrong About the World—and Why Things Are Better Than You Think, by Hans Rosling. His point is, young people get a pessimistic view of what’s happening in the world because that’s what all the newspapers say. And old guys like me have a pessimistic view of the world. But [we] have made enormous progress. And I’m re-reading a Lord Peter Wimsey story that I’m enjoying.