Leading Agricultural Economist Kept a Farmer’s Perspective

Walter P. Falcon

December 2023

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Cary Fowler used to telephone Walter Falcon every weekend like clockwork to discuss world affairs and ask for his views and insights. “He was just one of the wisest people I’ve ever met,” says Fowler, special envoy for global food security at the U.S. State Department. They’d talk about current events—climate change, trade issues, and the impact of the war in Ukraine on wheat prices. “He had so much experience, and not just in academics—his travels, his work abroad, growing up on a farm. A lot of agricultural economists never had the experience of being a farmer, having that feeling in your belly of what their lives are like.”

Walter Falcon sitting at a desk in a libraryPhoto: Chuck Painter/Stanford News Service

Walter P. Falcon, emeritus professor of economics, former deputy director of the Center on Food Security and the Environment, and former director of the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies, died of kidney disease on August 2 at his family farm in Marion, Iowa. He was 86.

In 1972, Falcon, a global authority on food security and the economics of agriculture, came to Stanford from Harvard to direct the Food Research Institute and became a sought-after consultant to governments and food-related organizations around the world. In 1992, the government of Indonesia awarded him its highest medal of merit, the Bintang Jasa Utama (“First Star”), for his 25 years of assistance with the country’s development efforts. Falcon wrote or co-authored more than 60 papers, addressing topics such as El Niño’s effects on Indonesian agriculture, agricultural policy reform in Mexico, the volatility of food prices, and bio-fuels. In retirement, he continued to publish and to advise on agricultural matters.

Falcon was the antithesis of the ivory tower scholar, says Roz Naylor, PhD ’89, a professor at the Stanford Doerr School of Sustainability and a longtime friend of Falcon’s who collaborated with him on multiple papers and field projects. “He derived many of his economic insights and policy recommendations from conversations with farmers all around the world,” she says. “He needed to travel to the field and see firsthand how the crops, farmers, and communities were faring. He was a farmer at heart and a world leader in food policy analysis in practice.”

“People say he could walk the halls of academia but still be very down to earth and have a cup of coffee with a local farmer out in the cornfield,” says his son Andrew Falcon, ’90, who took his father’s classes as an undergraduate. “He was a world expert, but also very humble and a great tease. He liked to go to barbecues, go to games, and drink a Manhattan.”

Falcon was predeceased by his son Phillip. In addition to Andrew, Falcon is survived by his wife, Laura; daughter, Lesley Falcon-Harney, ’81; and two grandchildren.

Tracie White is a senior writer at Stanford. Email her at traciew@stanford.edu.

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