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Breaktime: Ed Taylor — Reaping the benefits of his passion for rural societies

By Amy Agronis on January 31, 2005 in University

The laundry list of countries Ed Taylor has worked in may sound appealing. The agricultural and resource economics professor's job has taken him to most of western Europe, countries in western and eastern Africa, China and many nations in Central and South America.

But, Taylor assures, his style of travel is no picnic.

"I'll teach on Thursday, fly to Central America for the weekend and get back for class on Tuesday," he says. "I'll pull three-nighters to Paris. It's like I'm in a perpetual state of jet lag."

Taylor frequently flies to Washington or Europe for conferences or other parts of the world for fieldwork. He makes up to eight international trips per year.

Taylor's research specialties include international migration, rural economy modeling and interactions between economic development and the environment. Some of his subjects have included the economics of ecotourism in the Galapagos Islands, crop genetic diversity in Central and South America and U.S.-Mexican immigration in California's San Joaquin Valley.

Taylor's interest in rural economies led him to found and direct the Center on Rural Economies of the Americas and Pacific Rim in 2001. REAP, which is housed at the Institute of Governmental Affairs on campus, is affiliated with a center in Beijing and a program Taylor co-founded at Colegio de Mexico in Mexico City. It promotes research by multi-national teams on the impacts of migration and globalization on rural societies.

REAP recently conducted a national village household survey in Mexico, sampling 1,800 households in rural regions across the country. More than 100 students from Mexican universities and some from UC Davis conducted three-to-four-hour interviews in each household to learn about families' expenses and earnings. Many of the students are now using the data for their graduate theses.

"That was the biggest research thing I've ever done," says Taylor. "Typically, rural houses don't just get income from one source, but they have a portfolio of incomes. We needed to get beyond just the farm labor to understand how policies like NAFTA are changing things there."

Taylor did his own graduate work on Mexico's rural economies while at UC Berkeley. His original thesis would have taken him to China to study population economics, but a change in the country's political climate in 1983 prevented him from going. After graduating, he spent a year at Harvard and two years with a Washington think tank, The Urban Institute, before coming to Davis in 1987.

Taylor still lives in Berkeley with his wife, an anthropologist who is also involved with REAP, and two children. He says the commute doesn't bother him. "I do some of my best writing on the van ride. Besides, my sisters and my wife's sister all live in the Bay Area. This is one of those rare chances you get in life to live with the whole family."

And those jet-lag journeys he loves so much?

"I'm trying not to make so many trips because of my family," he says. "The travel is tough on everyone."

Where is the most exciting place you've been?

Almost every place I go is so interesting. I love going to Mexico, especially Oaxaca. China is fascinating because of its large scale and incredibly rapid change. You go back again and it is never the same.

Who inspires you?

My dad. I lost him in a car accident in 1985, but he's still my role model because of the way he approached things in life He would always find a way to connect with everyone he met. I catch myself asking how he'd react to different situations I come upon.

What is something others might find surprising about you?

Carpentry is my great escape. I have a woodshop in my basement. I handcrafted our dining room table and spent 10 years restoring our 1920s house. Many of the hand-carved timbers were eaten away by dry rot when we got the house. I had to re-sculpt some of them.

Read any good books lately?

How Green Was My Valley by Richard Llewellyn. He gets into this kid's head in an amazing way and has you seeing the things we teach, but through a kid's eyes. Also Me Talk Pretty One Day by Davis Sedaris. It's all about being different, and it's awesomely funny. I was rolling on the floor.

What is your guilty pleasure?

Chocolate. My favorite chocolate store is in Paris, Cacao et Chocolat. It has a Mexican theme. I spent $90 there in treats for my family and me for Christmas.

If you were President, what would you do first?

Number one, I would work cooperatively with other countries to end international conflicts. I would strengthen our commitment to the United Nations and our international development assistance. Our performance is about the worst among rich countries in terms of money per capita we give in foreign aid. Also, I would make the budget deficit a priority. •

Media contact(s)

Amy Agronis, Dateline, (530) 752-1932,