Walter (Wally) Falcon, a global leader on food security and the economics of agriculture recently passed away in Marion, Iowa at the age of 86.
Falcon was a widely recognized and sought-after consultant to governments and food-related international organizations including the Agricultural Development Council, the International Rice Research Institute, and the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center. In his 50 years at Stanford University, Falcon held leadership roles in esteemed institutions, including the Food Research Institute and the Freeman Spogli Institute for International Studies. He also played a pivotal role in establishing the Center for Environmental Science and Policy. Throughout his lifetime, Falcon wrote and co-authored more than 60 papers and 25 books and book chapters, including Food Policy Analysis. In his later years, Falcon continued to advocate for technological innovation spanning land, water, and energy resources, as well as increased funding for future research.
Two Food Tank Board Members who knew Wally well have written tributes in his honor. The first statement is written by William Burke, a Professor of Agricultural, Food and Resource Economics at Michigan State University and the second by Brian Halweil, the Commercial Director for Belltown Farms and a Strategic Associate at Astanor Ventures.
From William Burke:
I hardly feel qualified to say anything about Wally. By the time I met him in his office in Encina Hall in 2011, he was already a legend in my world. When I was an undergraduate studying economics 15 years earlier, I was reading work he had written before I was born. And yet, somehow, here I was, invited to speak at the Stanford Center on Food Security and the Environment, which, among his myriad other accomplishments, he had helped to found. Dazed from a 30-hour trip from Zambia the day before, I could barely think straight, let alone try to hold my own in a conversation with this icon. It must have gone well, though, because by the end of my visit he, Roz Naylor (then the Director of FSE) and I were talking about when I could start. A few months later I was going to work in an office across the hall from Wally, and I stayed there for 4 years. In that time, and after, he became a good friend and valued mentor. We talked a lot about economics and politics, as one might expect, but also baseball, football (college and the NFL), wine, food, family, and life in general.
I was traveling when I learned he had passed. I knew he hadn’t been well, so I searched for news before sending him a message. It was going to be a selfie with a Malawian landscape in the background and a caption that read “smelling the roses.” The first time I went to Malawi a decade or so earlier, Wally stopped by my office before I left for the airport to wish me a good journey. We talked about objectives, places I would visit and people I would see. Then, he stopped at the door on his way out and said, “While you’re there, make sure you stop to smell the roses. This kind of work you’re doing won’t last forever, and most people don’t get to do it at all. Whenever you find an opportunity to appreciate your life, I advise you to take it.” That was not the only sage advice he ever gave me, but it is emblematic of the kind of wisdom he could share so casually. In the 12 years I was lucky enough to know him, mostly crammed into those 4 years when he was across the hall, Wally helped me appreciate many good times and, it is not hyperbolic to say, survive some difficult ones.
I once asked Wally for advice because someone asked me to write them a letter of recommendation to a promotion committee. I held the person I was recommending in very high esteem, and I wanted it to show. Having written, I would guess, thousands of recommendations in his lifetime, Wally had great tips on how to articulate your respect for someone. I thought about that conversation when I decided to write this small tribute to him. One of the things he said was, “think of people you know the committee respects and explain why the person you’re describing fits into the same category.” That was good advice (the promotion did come through), but it does not work here. I honestly cannot think of anyone comparable to Walter Falcon. The man’s professional accomplishments speak for themselves, but the person I knew was more impressive. Wally had every right to think he was the most knowledgeable person in just about any room, and while he was not shy about giving his thoughts, he was also always inquisitive and never condescending. He did not strike me as a man who made you earn his respect; he gave it away by default, and rarely rescinded it. He was an uncommon combination of hard-earned confidence, empathy, courage and humility. I have known a great many people I like. Wally was among the very few that I want to be like. I am happy to say I told him all of this in the years after I left Stanford, as the weight of what I gained from knowing him became more apparent to me. Although our conversations had grown too rare in recent years, I will miss him, but I will also take the occasional opportunity to appreciate the time I spent with him.
From Brian Halweil:
When I was a college student and my interest turned to the global food system, I was lucky enough to be at a university where Wally Falcon was the head of the university’s food research institute. I immediately sought him out. He was always curious and encouraging. We certainly did not see eye to eye on topics such as organic farming, the use of biotechnology, and corporate influence over the food system. but Wally, no matter the difference of opinion, pushed me to support my thinking with research from the field, long-term data sets, and as much ecological science as we could bring to it. Eventually, Wally agreed to be my advisor for my honors thesis research about Mexico’s national program to encourage family gardens or huertos familiares. The trip took me to all corners of Mexico over six months and solidified my interest in knowing and having an impact on what we eat, and how we farm. I am grateful to have known Wally and for the generosity and wisdom he showed to me, and so many others. We stayed in touch over the past few decades. He was delighted to hear of a student who was still working in the food and agriculture field.
Wally is survived and lovingly remembered by his wife of 67 years, Laura; two children, Lesley (Daryl Harney) Falcon-Harney of Grand Island, Nebraska, and Andrew (Mary) Falcon of Stanford, California; and two grandchildren, Hallett and Andrew.
In lieu of flowers, donations can be made to the family in care of Murdoch Funeral Home in Marion.
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