Growing up, Sarah Low watched acid rain from Chernobyl decimate the industry around her home in southwest Scotland. She watched the economic and social fallout and decided, as an 9-year-old, she wanted to help rural communities.
Low’s entire career has been devoted to rural economic development. She recently joined the University of Missouri as the Fred V. Heinkel Professor in Agriculture and associate professor in regional economics for the Division of Applied Social Sciences, after 10 years in Washington, D.C., working for the United States Department of Agriculture.
Low will provide leadership for the Division of Applied Social Sciences’ Extension and research efforts, with a focus on enhancing rural and regional economic development, improving local community viability, developing effective policies and studying issues from a local or regional perspective.
“Even as a young kid, I knew I wanted to make rural places better,” Low said. “We had very little tourism where I grew up in Scotland, with the focus on the sheep and salmon fishing industries. When the salmon went away, it was devastating. I made it my mission to help those from rural communities.”
Low thought she could have the greatest impact through policy. She moved to the United States when she was 12 years old. Low’s mother was American, having grown up on a family farm in Iowa, and Low begged her mom to allow her to move to the United States.
“I had this idea that everything in America was going to be amazing,” Low said. “All I knew of America was what I had seen on TV, like, Baywatch. I got here after the farm crisis and quickly learned that rural communities in the United States had the same struggles that we had in Scotland.”
Low earned her bachelor’s degree in public service and administration in agriculture from Iowa State University. She received her master’s degree in agricultural economics from Purdue University, and her Ph.D. in agricultural and consumer economics from the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. She began her career at the Federal Reserve Bank of Kansas City, which, at the time, had the Center for the Study of Rural America.
While the job opened up several opportunities to do policy work for rural areas, the center eventually closed. Low decided to head toward Washington, D.C.
“I could have gone the professor route, but my main focus was on policy,” Low said. “When I was at Iowa State, I had the chance to attend a national collegiate conference in D.C., so I was always intrigued about the idea of working there.
“Coming from a town of 150 people in Iowa, I had never experienced anything like D.C. when I first went there as a college student. We didn’t go on a lot of vacations growing up, so I didn’t even have a suitcase. It was the first ‘city’ I had been to and I loved it.”
Low worked in the USDA Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C., as an economist for the Farm and Rural Business Branch and then the Rural Economy Branch. She conducted timely research on hot policy topics, such as the ethanol boom and the current broadband internet discussion.
“I try to be connected to what’s going on in the field, as well as what’s happening on a bigger scale,” Low said. “My research is very applied. I try to see what sort of problems people are facing in rural communities that I can help with.”
A portion of her final year at the USDA was in Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue’s office. Low wasn’t doing as much research in that new role, and she realized that if she truly wanted to keep her finger on the pulse of what rural communities experience, she needed to move into a different position.
“It’s hard to come off as an expert in rural economic development when you’ve been in D.C. for 10 years,” Low said. “The move to MU allows me to get back to why I was so passionate about rural economic development.”
There were a variety of reasons as to why Low was interested in joining the Division of Applied Social Sciences, including the opportunity to teach, as well as the chance to do research and extension work. Low will provide leadership to 46 community economic development specialists in county offices across the state.
“MU Extension, where my primary focus is in my new role, has reorganized to put more focus on regional economic development, and they’re really investing in that,” Low said. “That’s incredibly exciting. I’m excited to get to know each of the specialists. My goal is for them to feed me issues and problems that they need help solving. My team and I will conduct the research and help solve those problems.”
Along with her extension, research and teaching duties, Low will be working with and mentoring graduate students. Her research focus will continue from her time with the USDA. Low will look at the rural economic impacts of numerous initiatives, such as broadband, entrepreneurship and food manufacturing.
Low said Mizzou has a strong reputation in regional economic development. She added that she is excited to work with MU Extension, as they are also a big supporter of 4-H.
“When I came to the United States from Scotland, I joined 4-H before I even enrolled in school,” Low said. “The adjustment to a new culture would have been much more difficult without 4-H. The organization played a massive role in my life.”