Degree/Major: B.S. Farm Operations 1973; M.S. Economics 1985; Ph.D. Economics 1986
Hometown: Alexander, IA
Current employment/job title: Retired senior vice president for the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City
After growing up on a northern Iowa farm, Barkema attended Iowa State, originally majoring in engineering. This was shortly after Dr. Norman Borlaug won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for the green revolution, saving a million people from hunger. During his undergraduate years, Barkema spent a summer assisting agronomist Dr. Kenneth Fry with his field research, fascinated by the renowned plant breeder. After Barkema finished his bachelor’s degree in farm operations at Iowa State, he followed Fry's advice and went on to Cornell University to get a master’s degree in plant breeding.
It was also an exciting time in production agriculture—the farm boom of the 1970’s—crop prices and land values had gone through the roof. Barkema came back to Iowa to work on the family farm for a few years but was curious about these developments. So he enrolled as a part-time graduate student in economics at Iowa State, coming to Ames to take a couple of courses in winter quarter after harvest, and going back to the farm for spring planting.
Economics department head Ray Beneke and Earl Heady cornered him in Ray’s office and advised him to get serious about his graduate studies and to consider a career in academe. Barkema wasn’t convinced, but as the farm economy was going south, he stayed on campus, working for Bob Jolly and William Edwards in farm management extension. He wrote his dissertation on the run up and decline of farmland values, earning his master’s and then his doctorate degree in economics in 1986.
Just as Barkema was finishing his PhD, the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which was very concerned about what was happening in the farm economy, was looking for a trained economist who knew something about agriculture. He was hired and started his career in economic research and policy, earning a diploma from the executive program at Stanford University and eventually serving as senior vice president and director of research at the Fed, before retiring in 2012.
As senior vice president, he attended the Federal Open Market Committee and other meetings during the financial crisis—an extraordinary experience.
"The nation hadn’t seen a financial bust like that since the Great Depression and the steps that were required to get the economy moving again were unprecedented. Just being involved in that process, trying to figure it out, was a wonderful experience—the intellectual challenge was extraordinary. There was an adrenaline rush from facing a problem like that and I consider myself so lucky to have been in that chair at that time. It was exhilarating.”
During his last years at the Fed, Barkema also hired many young PhDs.
"It was such a pleasure working with them and getting them started on the right foot. If I have a favorite thing about that workplace, that’s it. I mean, seeing those young people get started and blossom—that’s about as good as it gets."
So how was it that a farm kid from Iowa ended up as a senior vice president at the Fed?
"I think there’s something about growing up on a farm that teaches you how to get things done. There’s a lot to be said for getting up early in the morning and going to work, you learn how the world works, and I think that’s a benefit. Part of it is that, being on the farm, you’re actually seeing the economy in action and a lot of other kids don’t get that glimpse."
Alan Barkema chairs the board of directors of the National Agricultural Center and Hall of Fame, is a director of the Agricultural Business Council of Kansas City, and he serves on the mission and finance teams of Saint Andrew Christian Church-Disciples of Christ.
Barkema gave the 2017 Carl and Marjory Hertz Lecture on Emerging Issues in Agriculture April 11 at the Richard and Joan Stark Lecture Hall, room 1148, in the Gerdin Building. He presented, “Pursuing Questions: Prospects for the Economy in Agriculture” at the 8 p.m. lecture. The Carl and Marjory Hertz Lecture on Emerging Issues in Agriculture was created in memory of the founders of Hertz Farm Management Inc. to inspire generations of industry leaders, research scientists and young professionals to reach their full potential.