Family farmers have lost a persistent ally.

University of Minnesota Prof. Willard Cochrane was a leading voice on U.S. farm policy for decades, an adviser to President Kennedy and an architect of the modern food stamp program.

He died Monday at an assisted living center in Oak Park Heights. He was 97.

Cochrane, an agricultural economist, wrote a dozen books on farm policy, advocating sustainable family farming and opposing government commodity program payments.

His colleagues described him as a giant in the field of applied agricultural economics -- a professor whose ideas didn't just land in academic journals but were turned into policies that affected millions of Americans.

He was sharp-witted, with strong opinions and a blunt style that sometimes got him into trouble, they said.

"He was engaged in some of the largest, most high-impact policies in agriculture," said Brian Buhr, head of the U's Applied Economics Department, from which Cochrane retired in 1981.

Born in 1914 in California, he spent his early years on a corporate farm managed by his father, who died when Cochrane was a boy. He later earned degrees at the University of California, Berkeley, Montana State University and Harvard University, where he received his Ph.D.

In the late 1930s and 1940s, he served in government and United Nations agricultural agencies. Then Cochrane moved to academia, joining the U as a professor of agricultural economics in 1951.

His biographer, Richard Levins, said Cochrane was a leading advocate of the idea that farmers couldn't depend on the free market, and that government intervention in agriculture was needed to assure abundant, affordable food.

In Cochrane's 1958 book "Farm Prices: Myth and Reality," he described the cycle in which farmers invest in new technology to grow more food, only to produce too much and see crop prices fall.

"The average farmer is on a treadmill," Cochrane wrote. "But by running faster he does not reach the goal of increased returns; the treadmill simply turns over faster."

That book caught the eye of Sen. John F. Kennedy, who in 1960 chose Cochrane as an adviser to his presidential campaign. Cochrane eventually became the U.S. Department of Agriculture's head agricultural economist under Secretary Orville Freeman, also from Minnesota.

Though others have been credited with developing the modern food stamp program, Levins said he believes Cochrane was its major architect. The program dates back to the 1940s, but the modern version was implemented in 1961.

Cochrane had less success with another of his major ideas -- to limit farm production with quotas rather than government payments. It was defeated in the early 1960s by agribusiness interests that labeled Cochrane a Communist, Levins said.

"He came back a bitter man over what happened," said Levins, who also was an applied economics professor at the U. His biography, "Willard Cochrane and the American Family Farm," was published in 2000.

After returning to the university, Cochrane served as dean of international affairs and continued to teach and write. He was an early advocate of paying farmers to set aside marginal farmland for conservation, a policy still in place today.

In retirement, Cochrane remained a voice in farm policy and published his last book, about sustainable family farming, in 2003 when he was nearly 90.

He and his wife, Mary, and their sons lived in Falcon Heights during his years at the U's St. Paul campus. The couple later moved to Stillwater and for many years raised Morgan horses, said their son Tim.

Tim Cochrane said his father had a lifelong love of the outdoors and hiked in many parts of the West.

His wife preceded him in death. He is survived by three of his four sons: Wes, of Stillwater; James, of Acme, Wash., and Tim, of Grand Marais, Minn.; seven grandchildren and two great-grandchildren.

A memorial service is planned but not yet scheduled. Arrangements are by Bradshaw Funeral Home in Stillwater.

David Shaffer • 612-673-7090