Tell Me What You Want: Professor Yue connects horticultural research programs to economic realities

December 22, 2017

By Echo Martin

Why don’t homeowners buy low-input, more sustainable turfgrass? Do genetic markers really save apple breeders money? Will people spend more money on produce grown with aquaponics? These kinds of questions are vital to the real-world success of applied plant research, but they require an entirely different kind of science: economics. Professor Chengyan Yue’s work in horticultural marketing bridges the gap between economic realities and applied horticultural research.

Professor Yue is a unique faculty member in Horticultural Science, garnering her own research area on the department website. She holds the Todd & Barbara Bachman Endowed Chair in Horticultural Marketing, which is required to reside in Horticultural Science and jointly held with Applied Economics. “The joint appointment has been great,” says Yue. “It keeps me connected with both sides, but being housed in horticulture keeps my projects focused on that area.”

All of Yue’s projects deal with horticulture, but no project is quite the same. Sometimes she works on specific plants, like turfgrass or apples, and sometimes production systems like aquaponics and hydroponics. Her latest project, funded by the American Floral Endowment, looked at how to market cut flowers to young consumers.

Even within similar areas, like when working with plant breeding programs, Yue is looking for different information. “With the turfgrass project, I’m doing focus groups with homeowners and seed producers to identify barriers for using or selling fine fescues,” says Yue. “I also work with the RosBREED project, which works with apple, peach, and strawberry breeders. There I’m doing a cost-benefit analysis for using genetic markers in their breeding programs.” This variety in her research projects keeps her job interesting. “I get excited about everything I work on, because they’re all so different.”

While her interdisciplinary work has been rewarding, it also presents challenges for Yue. “When I first started working in the department, it was challenging to communicate with the other scientists and in horticultural journals,” says Yue, who had previously only worked with other economists. “When I got my first paper published in HortScience, I used a lot of terms that are common with economists, but not with plant scientists. I had to learn how to communicate across disciplines.”

Yue’s research is an essential part of each project. Her research has informed how flower companies market products, determined whether certain labels mean consumers will pay more for the product, and focused plant breeding programs on consumer needs.

Yue is considered a pioneer in experimental and behavioral economics methods, which include techniques such as experimental auctions, audience surveys, and eye tracking studies. As proof of her commitment to the importance of marketing to the field of horticultural science, she initiated the Specialty Crop Economics Section within the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association. Through Yue’s interdisciplinary collaborations with other faculty members in the department and beyond, her work will continue to break down barriers between real-world applications and applied horticultural research.