Ag Research Spotlight:
“I’m excited that we’re working to develop a strategy for engaging the public in a conversation about controversial issues, helping give voice to those we serve.” –Mark Tucker, Professor of Youth Development & Agricultural Education
The Ag Research Spotlight shines each month on an individual whose work reflects our commitment to the six strategic themes that guide Agricultural Research at Purdue. Our spotlight for May 2016 underscores the theme, “Facilitating informed decision making to improve economic and social well-being.”
Mark Tucker grew up in Poplar Bluff, Missouri, where his family farmed part-time after his father retired from the Air Force. Young Mark loved both the outdoors and the English language. He thought his dream job might be technical writing until he discovered new possibilities at the University of Missouri, Columbia. “I had never heard ‘agricultural’ and ‘communication’ used in the same sentence until college,” he says. In the College of Agriculture on one end of the campus and the School of Journalism on the other, Tucker studied both the science behind agriculture and how mass media serve their audiences and support democracy. “That brought all the pieces together for me,” he says.
After earning a master’s degree in Agricultural Communication at Ohio State, he taught at Texas Tech before returning to Ohio State as an editor with Cooperative Extension. “That’s when I knew I had to get my [doctoral] degree,” he says. “I found rural sociology, and it was full of theories and ideas and authors I hadn’t heard of. It introduced ways of thinking about communication as a social process and how organizations and individuals make decisions.” He joined Purdue’s Youth Development and Agricultural Education department in January 2006 as the first faculty member in Ag Communication – “an exciting opportunity to build something at Purdue and to come here and lead it.”
Tucker’s research seeks to understand and improve consumer and farmer decision-making about food and agricultural issues. Insights from risk and science communication literature are a key input, with the main goal of increasing meaningful interaction with consumers. He says the process must not neglect the often-overlooked act of listening. "We want to better understand consumers, what’s most important to them, and how to provide them with relevant science-based information,” he says. “Land-grant universities cannot fulfill their mission without these insights.” The tools of his trade include various survey and interview methodologies and concepts from the social sciences. In his 10 years at Purdue, Tucker has observed how the rapid adoption of digital and social media has impacted his field. But he calls the public’s increased public sensitivity to food and how it’s produced the most interesting and challenging development over the last decade.
In addition to teaching courses in agricultural communication, Tucker works with Purdue Agriculture’s Issues-360 Program and co-advises the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow student organization. These future communicators will be challenged to provide science-based information to a public whose attention span is ever shorter, he says: “It’s a major challenge for all educators.”
Tucker’s dream job today is the one he’s in, working with words, ideas, and people in a top college of agriculture in the heart of the Midwest. Outside of his teaching and research, he enjoys camping and hiking, although not as often as he’d like. He also has a 1960 Studebaker Lark that occupies his time: “It needs a little work,” he says.