The legacy of Randy Barker: agricultural economist, water-use investigator, leader, teacher, and mentor

  Gene Hettel   |  

Randolph “Randy” Barker, who passed away in Utah at age 92 on 5 July 2022, has left an enduring legacy across the agricultural world. A renowned and respected agricultural economist at the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI), Dr. Barker was the second head of IRRI’s Economics Department, 1966–78, and acting head of IRRI’s Social Sciences Division, 2007–08. After digging just a bit deeper, one finds so much more in the international career of this true academic giant!

(Photo by G. Hettel)

In his own words from a 2009 IRRI Pioneer Interview, Randy said his story began in Los Baños, the Philippines in 1965. “I had agreed to go there with my family for 2 years as a part of an exchange program between Cornell University and the Philippine College of Agriculture [now the University of the Philippines at Los Baños]. Next door to the college was the newly established International Rice Research Institute.”

One of IRRI’s founding organizations, The Ford Foundation, had insisted that there be a position for an economist on IRRI’s fledgling staff. “When IRRI’s first economist, Vernon Ruttan, decided to return to the States, Bob Chandler, IRRI’s director general, offered me the position in mid-1966. IRRI and Cornell had reached an agreement that I would work half-time for each until the two years were up in 1967, after which I would be full-time at IRRI.

“Even after joining IRRI full time, I continued to teach one course a year at the College of Agriculture and an occasional course at the School of Economics, a good two hours or more drive from IRRI,” Randy added. “There was method in my madness. Through teaching, I was able to identify promising graduate students to come to IRRI to do their thesis research with us.

“When I joined IRRI in 1966, no one had ever heard of the place and many at the College looked across the railroad tracks and over the fence and wondered if anything useful would ever come out of the fancy buildings and housing. The establishment of IRRI reflected growing concerns about food security in Asia. Bob Chandler kept a tight grip on the reigns and we had a sharply focused mission, increase rice production in Asia. Joining IRRI back in those days was like buying into a penny stock that all of a sudden took off. In August 1966, we released IR8, the first of the so-called semidwarf varieties—and that changed everything.”

Economists—part of the problem?
“I joined IRRI at a time when agricultural scientists, such as 1970 Nobel Peace Laureate Norm Borlaug, thought that economists were part of the problem, not part of the solution. The last thing they wanted was to have an economist dealing with policy issues. So, my first task was to build some bridges with my scientific colleagues. Much of our research dealt with farm surveys.”

In the spirit of collaboration, IRRI’s agricultural engineers initiated the “loop survey”, a frequent survey of rice farms along the national highway in Central Luzon to observe their farm practices, particularly land preparation. “Covering the same loop in 1966–67, we initiated a farm household survey,” Randy pointed out proudly. “This survey was conducted about every 5 years during the wet and dry seasons through 2011–12 to track changes in farming practices, yields, costs, and returns, etc.”

(Photos by G. Hettel)

In September 2015, as the photo shows, some of “IRRI’s Loop Survey Crew” got together with Randy (back row center) to celebrate the publishing of the seminal book, Changes in Rice Farming in the Philippines: Insights from five decades of a household-level survey, that centers around the structural and economic changes in rice-farming trends revealed in the loop surveys that have occurred in the Philippines during the past 50 years. In addition to six case studies that focus on how farm households and their families have changed over time, the book provides a plethora of survey data that researchers can use to conduct more in-depth analyses for years to come.

According to Randy, the main objectives of an economics or social science department in a CGIAR center should be two-fold: to conduct research that meets the objectives of the institute including interdisciplinary research, and to maintain credibility in the profession mainly through published research.

“It was always a balancing act,” he exclaimed in his Pioneer interview.

The Gang of Four
In mid-1973, Randy returned to Cornell for a year of sabbatical leave. Dr. Robert “Bob” Herdt, another Cornell-based ag economist, was hired as a replacement for that 1 year until he returned.

“Fortunately, Bob decided to stay on for 10 and would eventually replace me permanently as department head in 1978,” Randy interjected. “Research on the constraints to rice production was Bob’s main focus and it led to a unique IRRI contribution in both methodology and research results.”

“The Gang of Four” at Cornell University from left: Herdt, Gomez, De Datta, and Barker. (Photo: IRRI)

For four years, Randy and Bob worked with agronomist, S.K. De Datta, and statistician, Kwanchai Gomez, on “constraints to high yield.” They called themselves “The Gang of Four” and conducted experiments in farmers’ fields in six different countries to see if the yields from their level of inputs would beat farmers’ yields.

They discovered that most farmers, in general, were doing quite well although under-investing in fertilizer in the dry season. However, the expenditure on insecticides, in most years, did not justify the cost—a finding that would be proven time and again in the future.

“In fact, there was a general overuse of insecticides (including inside the IRRI experiment station), which would lead to severe crop losses throughout Asia,” Randy pointed out. “The real difficulty was trying to identify the factors that explained why some farmers were so far from adopting new technology. Truly interdisciplinary research is sometimes very painful. But I found it (and teaching) to be very rewarding.”

(Photo by G. Hettel)

Seven-year labor of love

Perhaps, in Randy’s mind, even more of an achievement than his involvement in the Luzon Loop Survey, was what would be a seven-year labor of love in collaboration with colleagues Bob Herdt and Beth Rose. “Shortly before I left IRRI to return to Cornell in 1978, Bob and I sat down for a couple of hours to outline a book, The Rice Economy of Asia, agreeing on who would write which chapters,” Randy recalled.

Published in 1985, to this day, the seminal book still presents a clear picture of some of the critical issues dealing with rice productivity and equity and continues to be very useful to decision-makers at national and international levels, professionals, and students of development. A Kindle version of the book is available on Amazon.

During their 2009 discussion at Cornell (photo above), Randy and Bob review the enduring importance of the book and do not overlook the relevance of the detailed appendix by Beth Rose that would come later. The above video clip is part of a larger six-part The Trouble with You Economists. Watch this very informative and entertaining exchange between Randy Barker and Bob Herdt, recorded at Cornell in July 2009, during which they discuss the origin and evolution of the social sciences research at IRRI.

The importance of water management in rice
In 1972, when Randy had an opportunity to hire a second economist at IRRI, he interestingly picked agricultural engineer Tom Wickham, another Cornell product who also did have a minor in economics.

“The engineers at IRRI were working on mechanization, but I figured that, if we were doing research on rice, we certainly should be doing research on water management,” Randy explained.

Wickham had done his thesis research in the Philippines as a part of the Cornell-College of Agriculture exchange program. Water management research was in Randy’s Agricultural Economics Department for around 3 years and then, under Wickham, a separate department for water was created. Wickham later became the first director general of the International Irrigation Management Institute (IIMI; now the International Water Management Institute, IWMI) established in Sri Lanka in 1984.

Randy never lost his interest in water management. After retiring from IRRI in 1978, for more than a decade, he taught a graduate seminar, the Socio-Technical Aspects of Irrigation with Gil Levine and two other colleagues at Cornell. After retiring from Cornell in 1995, he started a second career by joining IWMI for six years (1999–2005).

“I headed a very successful project, How to Grow More Rice with Less Water, Randy beamed during his Pioneer Interview. The research was conducted at two sites in China, one in the Yangtze River basin and the other in the Yellow River Basin. Funded by the Australian Centre for International Agricultural Research, it involved a first-rate team of scientists from Wuhan University, Commonwealth Scientific and Industrial Research Organisation, IRRI, and IWMI.

Other accolades
Randy’s impressive career also included serving as Director of Cornell’s Southeast Asia Program (1989–94) and he was an International Professor in Cornell’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences (1978–94). He was also Professor Emeritus in the Charles H. Dyson School of Applied Economics and Management at Cornell University and a member of the Board of Trustees of the International Institute of Tropical Agriculture in Nigeria, 1987–93, the last two years as chair.

Randy began his academic career at Princeton. He received his BS from Cornell University in 1953, MS from Oregon State University in 1957, and Ph.D. from Iowa State University in 1960.

What is the greatest comparative advantage?
In an earlier 2007 interview, Randy discussed challenges for IRRI, which are still relevant today.

“The real challenge now is being sure that IRRI operates in the area where it has the greatest comparative advantage,” he pointed out. “For example, the challenge for upstream work is to have the appropriate connections with the advanced institutions for developing biotechnology research. When going downstream, this means, in part, the ability to transfer some of that biotechnology expertise and focusing it in those areas that are going to complement what the NARES [national agricultural research and extension systems] are doing.

“One of the things to recognize, of course, is that the NARES now are much more competent than they were back in, say, 1960, so they can handle a lot of the traditional work that IRRI was doing then. A friend of mine told me that IRRI and the other centers should be noted, not for the research that they intend to do, but for the research that they won’t do. What is it that IRRI won’t do because someone else can do it better? And [in my expertise in economics], it is pretty much the same sort of question. We have a strong comparative advantage in collecting and analyzing farm household data on a wide range of issues—for example, who is adopting the technology, who isn’t, and why? This is one of the best ways we can support the biophysical scientists.”

Tributes have come in from colleagues and friends around the world. Here are just a few.

“I have known Randy for over 20 years but became close with him during his stay at IRRI during 2007–11. He often stayed at my place in Manila and became a family friend. There are so many good memories of our professional and personal interactions. Rest in Peace Randy. We’ll treasure the memories of our times together.” Sushil Pandey, former IRRI economist

“I first met Randy when he was at IWMI. He was a great teacher to me (and many others) about economics and water management and about rice in general. I am thankful to him for all the guidance he gave me on field trips throughout China, always making sure the team would stop and talk to as many farmers as possible. It was also a pleasure to meet up with him at IRRI HQ in Los Baños. He was so filled with curiosity, always asking difficult questions about a range of subjects, from water to fertilizer to the world rice market and everything else in between. We will miss you very much, Randy!” David Dawe, former IRRI and FAO economist

“Randy would talk about the old days when he arrived at IRRI as an agricultural economist and how the job of an agricultural economist has changed over the years. He absolutely loved the Philippines and had many stories to share. I am grateful for having spent time with him and learning from his experience. I will never forget his stories of how it was to be among the first agricultural economists working at IRRI. He will be missed.” Matty Demont, Sustainable Impact in Rice-based Systems Platform, IRRI

“Dr. Randy Barker was a great leader and mentor as the acting head of IRRI’s Social Sciences Division. His witty presentations and good humor are what I admired most. He always had a sharp mind when it comes to work, engaging with him on the Game of Rice presentations [which he heavily promoted] during the past years is probably one of the best moments I have spent with him. We will miss your presence, Dr. Barker.” Dehner De Leon, Former SSD staff (now Impact Evaluation, Policy, and Foresighting (IEPF), IRRI

“Randy was a big supporter of Rice Today and encouraged me to keep the magazine afloat despite the lack of funds.” A.F. Santiaguel, managing editor, Rice Today

“Whenever he visited IRRI, he would drop by to inquire what we were working on and to check if we were going to the field and talking to farmers.” Alice Laborte, Research Lead, Spatial Transformation of Landscapes, IRRI

Randy was preceded in death by his wife Jenny and a son Ethan. He is survived by children Rand, Heidi, Shaun, Matt, Lydia, and Kelly and grandchildren.

There will be no funeral but a memorial service is planned for some time in the future. Condolences may be sent to the family via his son Shaun in Providence, Utah.

3 Comments so far. Feel free to join this conversation.

  1. Purificacion MacDonald July 18, 2022 at 3:26 am - Reply

    My deepest sympathy to the Barker family. Dr Barker had guided me in my career as an Ag Economist. I met Dr Barker and his wife at UPLB AGEC dept way back in 1965.

  2. Gene Hettel July 21, 2022 at 6:52 am - Reply

    Randy was an avid Major League Baseball fan—especially the Boston Red Sox, a team that routinely beat my team—the Cleveland Indians. He was truly excited when the Bosox finally won a World Series a few years back, breaking the curse of the Bambino—Babe Ruth—who was traded by Boston to the New York Yankees!

  3. Andrew M Novakovic September 4, 2022 at 1:23 am - Reply

    Randy was a member of the Cornell faculty in what we now call the Dyson School (at that time simply the Ag Econ Dept) when I joined in 1978. His office was across the hall from mine. Frankly I was a bit intimidated by him, but, as we were both early risers, we got to know one another in those hours before other folks arrived. Over time, I came to know him as both unassuming and intellectually engaging. He had a certain absent-minded professor aura about him but also a quick mind and no end of stories he would be delighted to share if given half a chance. Also, I came to find out that he was a very decent and caring fellow. He is a great example of what made Cornell so impactful in agriculture and agricultural economics in the mid 20th Century – solid science and methods blended with real world knowledge that together could make a difference in people’s lives.

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