Barry Flinchbaugh, Ag Policy Expert, dies at 78

The renowned KSU ag economist participated in federal ag policy discussion since 1971.

Barry Flinchbaugh, ag policy specialist at Kansas State University, died November 2. He was 78 years old. 

A renowned agriculture policy expert, Flinchbaugh worked behind the scenes to cultivate federal farm policy from 1971 to his retirement from Extension in 2004. He was a legendary speaker, packing meeting halls to discuss agriculture policy, his trademark cigar often nestled between his thumb and forefinger when he needed emphasis. He forewent the cigar in favor of a cane in recent years, using the cane as a prop when necessary. He touted fairness in public policy, imploring Democrats and Republicans alike to set aside differences and work together. A dynamic speaker, it was reported that he would receive as many as 100 speaking invitations per year. He authored more than 100 publications and co-authored a textbook on agricultural policy.

Barry Flinchbaugh
Finchbaugh met every president from Harry Truman to George W. Bush, and was well known as one of the United States’ leading experts on agricultural policy and agricultural economics. For more than four decades, he was a top adviser to politicians of both major political parties, including secretaries of agriculture, chairs of the House and Senate Ag committees, and numerous senators and state governors. Flinchbaugh was involved to some degree in every U.S. Farm Bill written since 1968, and served on many national boards, advisory groups, and task forces, providing input on domestic food and agricultural policy. He served as the chairman of the Commission on 21st Century Production Agriculture, which was authorized in the 1996 Federal Activities Inventory Reform (FAIR) Act, also known as the Freedom to Farm Act.

Still, he was most proud of the students he tutored during 49 years of teaching agricutural policy to KSU students. He taught more than 5,000 students in all, many of whom are now leaders in agriculture policy development, trade negotiations, and business. He was a tough teacher, but fair. His essay tests challenged students to “think,” one Twitter user noted Monday. At every speaking engagement, Flinchbaugh proclaimed “this group of students is the best I ever had,” assuring his audience that the future was in good hands with the students who eagerly took his class. Many students continued to consult with Flinchbaugh long after they left KSU. 

Former student Sadie Polson, who shared the photo she took of Dr. Flinchbaugh the first day of class in 2019, said ag policy was the only class for which she wanted to sit in the front row. 

Kansas State University’s department of agricultural economics posted this statement on Twitter: “Well-known for his contributions to U.S. ag policy, Dr. Flinchbaugh always had a great passion for teaching and his students. He will be deeply missed and leaves a hole in the AgEcon Dept that can’t be filled.”

On Twitter, scores of people responded to the news of Flinchbaugh’s death. His former colleague at KSU, Joe Janzen (now at the University of Illinois), noted: “When I started I had an office next to Barry Flinchbaugh. After teaching his ag policy class, he would hold court with the students who worked as his TAs. He’d give what was basically a second lecture on the political economy of U.S. agriculture. I got to listen in.”

Flinchbaugh served on numerous boards of directors and advisory groups. At his urging, the Kansas Agricultural and Rural Leadership (KARL) group was formed in 1989 and he served as one of its board members since the begininng. In the 15 classes since, the program he championed has had nearly 440 participants, including leaders in local, state, and national organizations. 

In a statement posted to Twitter, KARL wrote: “With a heavy heart, we pass along the news that Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh passed away this morning. A fervent supporter of this program serving on the board of directors since our beginning. Our thoughts are with the Flinchbaugh family.”

Kansas Farm Bureau President Rich Felts issued a statement also. “We are deeply saddened by the recent loss of Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh. For more than 50 years Dr. Flinchbaugh was a voice of reason and a counselor to agriculture and the leaders of our nation. His wisdom and insight on farm policy and international trade will not be easily replaced. His quick wit and abundance of humor made even the most mundane topics interesting. Dr. Flinchbaugh’s legacy also includes teaching thousands of students about agricultural policy in his 49-year tenure at Kansas State University. Kansas Farm Bureau sends its heartfelt condolences, thoughts, and prayers to Cathy and the Flinchbaugh family.”

Flinchbaugh often worked with U.S. Senator Pat Roberts (R-KS) on ag policy issues. He released a statement on Flinchbaugh’s passing: 

“Franki and I are deeply saddened by the news of Dr. Barry Flinchbaugh’s passing earlier today. Dr. Flinchbaugh was nothing short of a legend in his field. His expertise made him one of the most coveted and trusted advisers for agricultural policy for decades.

“Dr. Flinchbaugh’s legacy as an educator and advocate will live on through his work at K-State and his lifetime of dedication to agriculture. I will not only miss his guidance, but I will also miss his friendship, wit, and humor.

“I have many special memories of Barry, in particular our times together on the Pat and Dan Show, where he moderated lively discussions between former Congressman Dan Glickman, our state agriculture groups, and myself.”

Ironically, Roberts retires from the U.S. Senate in 2020, his successor to be determined in the November 3 election. Successful Farming caught up with Flinchbaugh four years ago, prior to the presidential election that ended with a Donald Trump victory. In our interview, he lamented the discourse that has become politics as usual: “This Make America Great Again line is not based on fact; it is a political slogan. I believe this country is still the greatest country in the world.”

A native of Pennsylvania Dutch country, Flinchbaugh earned bachelor’s and master’s degrees at Penn State University, and a doctorate in agricultural economics at Purdue University, studying under future ag secretary Earl Butz. He was hired as an Extension agricultural economist at KSU in 1974, where he was charged with developing a state tax plan that was more equitable to landholders. His plan for a mix of sales, property, and income tax remains in place today. 

He leaves behind his wife, Cathy; a son, James; and daughter, Katherine. He was predeceased by son David. 

Funeral services are pending, although folks can listen to a special KSU Agriculture Today radio broadcast Tuesday at 10 a.m. 

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