Agricultural economist Vernon Ruttan, 84

  • Article by: LIBBY NELSON , Star Tribune
  • Updated: August 23, 2008 - 8:35 PM

His theories were "seminal pieces of work," and he was known for treating younger colleagues as equals.

Vernon Ruttan was a farm boy who grew up to become a renowned agricultural economist. He died Monday at Regions Hospital in St. Paul at age 84.

Ruttan spent his childhood in northern Michigan, then studied at Michigan State University, Yale University and the University of Chicago. In 1965, he arrived at the University of Minnesota, where he headed the Agricultural Economics Department, now the Applied Economics Department.

Ruttan is best known for his theory of "induced innovation," which says people make up for scarce resources by using technological improvements or social change -- or in the old phrase, "necessity is the mother of invention." He developed the theory with Japanese economist Yujiro Hayami.

Ruttan's theories were "seminal pieces of work," said Brian Buhr, who holds Ruttan's former job as head of the Applied Economics Department.

"Everybody was influenced by him, even if we weren't working with him," Buhr said.

He said Ruttan's farm background kept him down-to-earth. Ruttan had a habit of asking younger, less-experienced colleagues to lunch to talk about economics, treating them as equals, he said.

He treated you as a peer

Buhr said he vividly remembers his first lunch with Ruttan, at the student union.

"I can just recall sitting across the table," Buhr said. "You have an icon who's written books, and it's like you were talking to your absolute age and professional peer."

Ruttan was named a Regents Professor in 1986 and officially retired from the U in 2000. Even after retirement, he continued to write every morning, Buhr said. His most recent book, "Is War Necessary for Economic Growth?" was published in 2006.

Even in his last days, he was writing letters to younger professors, said his daughter, Lore Ruttan, a lecturer in environmental studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

"The only thing that was limiting at all is that his eyesight was giving him trouble," she said. "Otherwise, he would have been starting yet another book."

Toward the end of his career, their subject areas began to overlap more, she said.

"Increasingly, as he grew older, his interests were turning toward an environmental theme," she said. "He was very interested in the human dimensions of global climate change."

His work was his life, she said. But he was also a fisherman, catching trout when he was growing up in Michigan, then smallmouth bass at the family cabin in northern Minnesota.

"Someone said to my mother, they'd never heard him once say an unkind word about anyone," Lore Ruttan said. "To us, he stressed the importance of kindness and consideration for others and that's what his work was all about, too, helping others."

In addition to his daughter Lore, Ruttan is survived by his wife, Marilyn, son Christopher, and daughters Lia and Alison. A memorial service will be held at the U this fall.

Libby Nelson • 612-673-4758

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