Feeding the Future

From Kentucky to Thailand and across the globe, MU Chancellor Brady Deaton improves agriculture and education

Brady Deaton crouched down as his bus passed through the barrier and police were drawing their guns.  His ride had just passed through a police barricade. Fortunately, no shots were fired—the police had been paid off – as asserted by a Thai colleague.

“Boom there you are,” said Deaton, the 21st Chancellor of the University of Missouri. “We were just paying for a ride from Phayao back to Nan, Thailand,” where Deaton launched his international agricultural career as a Peace Corps volunteer in 1962.

Deaton was active in 4-H growing up and wanted to be part of the International Farm Youth Exchange (IFYE) program. During his sophomore year at the University of Kentucky, he visited the local extension agent who informed him there wasn’t funding for IFYE, but advised him to consider a new program: the U.S. Peace Corps.

He handwrote a letter to Peace Corps expressing his interest and background. He had done a little bit of everything on his family farm in Kentucky, including raising pigs, chickens and cows, and growing corn and tobacco.

He brought that experience to his role as a vocational agricultural educator in northern Thailand, where in collaboration with Thai teachers, he demonstrated the importance of fertilizer and liming the soil to help Thai farmers improve their milo and sorghum farms.

Deaton examines the soil in one of his school’s research plots.

Tumultuous Times

Just to the east, the United States was deepening its presence in Vietnam, while back home the Civil Rights movement was gaining momentum. One of his fellow volunteers and close friends had been active in sit-ins with Jesse Jackson in North Carolina. “We talked a lot about Civil Rights and what was happening around us,” Deaton said.

Deaton lived and worked in a region in northern Thailand, not far from Laos and nearly surrounded by poppy fields. Some of the students he and his Thai colleagues taught were recruited by the Pathet Lao, a nationalist movement in Laos connected to Vietnamese Communists.  “We knew it was a very dynamic setting,” Deaton said.

In that setting, Deaton thrived—due in no small part to his acquisition of the Thai language and appreciation for the culture. During the Cuban Missile Crisis, he heard the news through a broken BBC broadcast in English: “Russian ships…Cuba…interception.” When President Kennedy was assassinated, Deaton heard the news on a Thai radio station. He was coaching basketball when it happened. A friend stopped him on his bicycle on the way home so he could listen to the Thai newscast.

“It was a time of crisis; it was in front of you all the time,” Deaton said. He often had discussions about global politics and foreign policy with his Thai and American friends while sharing a warm Pepsi—if they could find one. “We represented our own views. We weren’t there to explain away America,” he added.

Deaton with Buawan Muangsuwan (far left) and his friends. He and Buawan still communicate regularly. Buawan recently hosted Deaton and one of his sons on a tour of some of the places where Chancellor Deaton worked as a Peace Corps volunteer. All of the Deatons’ four children have worked overseas. Their son, Brady Jr., served in the Peace Corps in Lesotho.

Peace Corps volunteers are ambassadors of American culture, but are not permitted to espouse religious beliefs or advocate American foreign policy. They build friendships through cultural exchange and by planting crops, teaching, improving business practices, delivering health education and fostering community development projects alongside their host country coworkers. For many volunteers, it’s a transformative experience.

Like most Peace Corps volunteers, Deaton found avenues to impact his community outside of the scope of his primary assignment. He organized basketball tournaments with his Thai coworkers and Chinese merchants to raise money for children whose parents had leprosy. They used the funds to pay the for the children’s school fees. “It was one of my most rewarding experiences there,” he said.

“I was growing and maturing; I knew more about myself and what I wanted to do. Going back to school I decided to switch from dairy genetics to economics and management because I thought more progress could be made in promoting the economy,” he said. “Talking with Thai friends and learning more about their culture and the experiences I had there helped shape that decision.”

Bitten by the International Bug

After returning from Thailand, it wasn’t long before Deaton headed abroad again. He spent the following two summers working with the YMCA in Colombia and Ecuador. In Ecuador, he met Anne Simonetti, and they married the following summer in 1967.

Deaton poses for a photo with one of the monks whom he taught English to in Nan province. In his free time, Deaton traveled to remote temples by bicycle and once had to carry his bike overhead while he crossed a stream.

Deaton furthered his global perspective in graduate school, earning a master of arts in diplomacy and international commerce at the University of Kentucky, and master of science and doctorate degrees in agricultural economics with a focus on agricultural and international development, both at the University of Wisconsin.

Chancellor Deaton (seated on the left), the headmaster of the Nan Vocational Education School, Luan Su Pakdee (seated in the center) Fred Perry, fellow Peace Corps volunteer (seated on the right) and two students (standing).

Since then he’s taught undergraduate and graduate students in agricultural economics and rural sociology at three universities, directed groups such as the Special Task Force on Food for Peace for the U.S. Department of Agriculture, chaired the Agricultural Economics Department at MU, currently chairs the Missouri Council on Public Higher Education (COPHE), and earned two honorary doctorates from Thai universities.

Deaton said he’s very proud of the University’s international programs and connections, including recent initiatives such as the Confucius Institute, the Transatlantic Center and the Peace Corps Fellows program.

His poise under pressure and his 40-plus-years commitment to education and agricultural development led to his appointment by President Obama as chair of the Board for International Food and Agriculture Development (BIFAD).

Marshaling Resources

“In BIFAD we advocate a university knowledge-based approach,” Deaton said. “Our mission is to work with universities and the director of USAID to maximize the way in which universities and the scientific knowledge we create can affect USAID programs. We integrate nutrition, agriculture and health affairs—we’re a strong advocate for that and it’s a dimension on which we’ve advised (USAID) Administrator Rajiv Shah.”

And MU’s College of Agriculture, Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) is at the center of that work. Deaton cited the strength of its Plant Sciences Division, the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute (FAPRI) and the College’s work in nutrition.

“There is really cutting edge work being done worldwide driven by the knowledge generated from our experiment stations and research labs,” he said.

“One of the real challenges we face is feeding another billion people by 2025, and two more billion by 2050. These are formidable challenges in terms of the increases in food production, biogenetics of seeds, of root development–every aspect of crop production, and food storage and distribution systems,” Deaton said. “That’s our collective challenge and the University and the Agricultural Experiment Station are at the forefront of how to solve that challenge.”

From working the soil with a water buffalo in northern Thailand to working to shape international agricultural practices and policy to improve food security, Deaton has remained rooted in agriculture and committed to the role of higher education in advancing society.

Chancellor Deaton receives an honorary PhD from Khon Kaen University (KKU). Photo by Nicholas Benner.

“His connection to Thailand is a really strong one; it’s one service, of academic engagement and deep emotional attachment that goes back to his time in Peace Corps,” said MU Provost Brian Foster before Deaton was awarded an honorary doctorate in public administration from Khon Kaen University last spring. “Deaton’s commitment to global issues is really impressive. The anchor of that commitment was his experience in Thailand. Since that time he’s never wavered in either his Thai commitment or his interest in broader global issues.”

Editor’s note: This story is part of a series.

Fifty one years ago a bold experiment was launched. The task: promote global friendship and foster cultural understanding while sharing our greatest assets—our knowledge, skills and ideas—around the world.

The Peace Corps is one of President John F. Kennedy’s most enduring legacies, and like the more than 200,000 Americans who have served overseas in the Peace Corps, eight faculty members in the Division of Applied Social Sciences in the College of Agriculture Food and Natural Resources (CAFNR) at MU have shared their time and talents around the world.

“International work is a legacy of U.S. colleges of agriculture and the land grant institutions,” said Jill L. Findeis, Director of the Division of Applied Social Sciences in CAFNR. “The fact that we have so many returned Peace Corps volunteers in this division is amazing. There’s a certain something special about Peace Corps volunteers — a certain set of characteristics that they possess. It’s a huge benefit to our research and educational programs to have returned Peace Corps volunteers in our midst and in colleges of agriculture.”

While these folks served in vastly different areas across five decades they share a common thread: their experiences in the Peace Corps still influence their careers today. Many left their countries of service decades ago, but their countries haven’t left them.

See the entire series

Did you serve in Peace Corps, too? Contact Mike Burden at burdenm@missouri.edu