Newew Iowa State Uni­­versity (ISU) Extension economist Wendong Zhang traces his interest in agriculture back to childhood days spent helping harvest wheat on his grandparents’ farm in rural China.

"In some ways, my grandfather’s farm in Shandong Province in northeastern China was similar to an Iowa farm," he says. "Located in the western portion of the province, most of the family-run farms rotated crops between wheat and corn."

The son of a physics teacher and an accountant, Zhang says his interest in how farmers interact with nature led him to study environmental science at Fudan University in Shanghai. He then came to the United States to earn his Ph.D. in agricultural, environmental and developmental economics from Ohio State University.

After completing his studies last year, Zhang was hired by ISU to replace long-time Extension economist Mike Duffy, who retired in 2014 after 30 years at ISU — longer than Zhang, 28, has been alive.

Well aware of his predecessor’s legacy, Zhang often finds it most efficient to introduce himself as "the new Mike Duffy" as he meets farmers and others in his new job, although he ...