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August 21, 2006 Press Contact: William Harms
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University of Chicago awards Ph.D. to oldest person ever to receive the degree

    In the News:

“University of Chicago awards one ripe Ph.D.”
[Chicago Sun Times]
August 21, 2006

“Dreams of Ph.D. bear fruit at last”
[Chicago Tribune]
August 20, 2006

After a long and fruitful career, 79-year-old master’s degree graduate Herbert Baum has returned to the University of Chicago to earn his Ph.D. The oldest person ever to be awarded a doctorate by the University, Baum will receive the degree in economics Friday, Aug. 25.

When he left the University in 1951 to become a government agricultural economist in Washington, D.C., Baum had a master’s degree and was just short of writing his dissertation to earn a doctorate.

His dissertation contributes to agricultural economics by examining how to measure the impact of fees charged producers for commodity promotion and research. The thesis, based on a case study of the strawberry industry in California in which he was a leader, developed a model for researchers to understand the long-term value of the fees assessed growers. The model shows how the policies of the state strawberry commission, which supported research into improved varieties, improved production per acre and grower profitability.

James Heckman, the Henry Scultz Distinguished Service Professor in Economics at the University of Chicago and winner of the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences in 2000, was a member of a committee that also included two other Nobel Prizes. Heckman said of Baum’s work, “Herb Baum’s Ph. D. thesis is a well executed study of an industry partially monopolized by government authority. His application of basic price theory to understand the consequences of this policy is in the best tradition of empirical price theory at Chicago. He combines theory with evidence in a convincing way in a serious piece of research on a major agricultural industry.”

Baum’s work with strawberries began shortly after he went to work in California in 1953 after working for the federal government upon completing is master’s degree. Inspired by former professor and free-market economist Milton Friedman who went on to receive a Nobel Prize, Baum decided to find work in private industry. He went on to became a leading figure in the development of the state’s strawberry industry.

“I went into the produce business because, as a boy growing up in Fort Wayne, Ind., that was the business my family was in,” explained Baum, who with his wife, Gloria, now live in the Oregon coastal community of Depoe Bay.

The strawberry business was in its infancy when Baum went to California. Fresh strawberries at the time were only available from local producers and the season was short. Most strawberries grown in California were frozen and shipped while the fresh ones were consumed in the state.

New varieties, improved growing techniques, and better marketing and transportation revolutionized the industry. By the 1990s, strawberries were grown up and down the coastal valleys of California and shipped around the country nearly year-around. The industry also developed a thriving export market in Japan. Fresh strawberry consumption in the United States grew per capita from 1.6 pounds in 1962 to 5.23 pounds in 2005, as people learned of the nutritional value of the fruit that growers had developed into berries sturdy enough enough to be shipped long distances.

“Fresh fruit production, unlike most agricultural crops, is not subsidized by the government, so the strawberry industry was a perfect industry to study to see how the free market works,” said Baum, who started work on his dissertation after his retirement.

Friedman, the Snowden Russell Distinguished Service Professor Emeritus in Economics, was one of the faculty members who approved granting Baum a Ph.D. Joining Friedman on the committee were Nobel Prize-winning economists Gary Becker, University Professor in Economics, and committee chair James Heckman. Roger Myerson, the William C. Norby Professor in Economics, also served on the committee.

Baum based his dissertation on his life’s work and titled it: “Quest for the Perfect Strawberry; A Case Study of the California Strawberry Commission and the Strawberry Industry: A Descriptive Model for Marketing Order Evaluation”.

Baum clearly knows strawberries from the inside out. He began his career at Blue Goose Inc., based in Anaheim, a nationwide grower and shipper of fruits and vegetables. He helped develop the relatively new strawberry industry there, which Blue Goose was pioneering, and then joined Naturipe Berry Growers in San Jose in 1958, where he became vice president of sales for the strawberry grower-shipper cooperative. He became president of the cooperative and then retired in 1991 after being twice-elected chairman of the California Strawberry Commission.

His ability to understand the free market, based on his Chicago training, was particularly crucial to the success of the industry because unlike grains and milk that are overproduced, the federal government does not support the price of strawberries and other fresh fruit by buying excess production.

Baum also was a firm backer of marketing and advertising, which increased the nation’s demand for strawberries and compensated for the problem of over production.

As a result of his work, he was viewed as a spokesman for the industry during his career.

“Quest for the Perfect Strawberry” documents the work of the California Strawberry Commission to use money from a mandatory grower assessment on strawberry production to boost research and promotion. His dissertation developed a model for researchers to understand how the results of the assessment could be effectively evaluated. The model shows how the policies of the commission influence production per acre and grower profitability. Baum began working on the project seriously in 1999. “I always felt that something was unfinished because I had not completed my Ph.D.,” he said.

A professor in economics at the University, who reviewed his initial draft suggested it would make a good book, so Baum published an edited version in 2005 and then sent copies to members of his dissertation committee.

Heckman contacted him and said the published book qualified as a completed dissertation and invited Baum to come and discuss his work at a July seminar. Baum and his wife spent the summer in Chicago as he prepared for the presentation and completed requirements for his diploma.

“I e-mailed Jim Heckman to ask what I should bring to the seminar, and he e-mailed me back immediately: ‘Bring Strawberries.’ So I brought Driscolls, they’re the best kind, and everyone enjoyed them while I talked about my work.”
Last modified at 07:08 PM CST on Sunday, February 11, 2007.

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