Remembering Burt Swanson, a passionate and influential advocate for smallholder farmers around the world

Remembering Burt Swanson, a passionate and influential advocate for smallholder farmers around the world
Remembering Burt Swanson, a passionate and influential advocate for smallholder farmers around the world

The international agricultural and rural development community lost an influential and passionate advocate last week. Burton Swanson, professor emeritus of rural development in the Department of Agricultural and Consumer Economics, passed away after a long illness on April 23, 2020.

Swanson, who was a College of Agricultural, Consumer and Environmental Sciences (ACES) alumnus (BS, 1961) returned to ACES as a professor in 1975, where he remained for the rest of his career. After completing his M.S. and Ph.D degrees, he had served in the Peace Corps and worked with Norman Borlaug at CIMMYT (the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center) in Mexico before bringing back to ACES a passion for international work that would help place the College at the forefront of international development projects, a legacy that continues today.

Swanson’s notable achievements included originating the International Program for Agricultural Knowledge Systems (INTERPAKS) in 1982. As part of the INTERPAKS effort, he worked in more than 40 developing countries and trained more than 400 extension officials from over 35 countries. He designed and led the USAID-funded Agricultural Exports for Rural Income (AERI) project in Egypt from 2003-2007. One of his capstone achievements was securing the $9 million USAID-funded Modernizing Extension and Advisory Service (MEAS) project in 2010, which led to much exposure and additional extension strengthening projects for ACES. Through these projects and others, he became renowned in ACES and beyond for his career-long devotion to international extension and the livelihoods of rural people around the world.

“Burt dedicated himself to extension aimed at poverty alleviation, and he preferred to get involved in international extension approaches that targeted poorer farmers, smaller farmers, and especially women farmers,” remembers Paul McNamara, professor of agricultural and consumer economics and director of AgReach, who worked with Swanson on the MEAS project and considered him a mentor and a friend.

Swanson was a prolific scholar in international extension and agricultural education and was involved in active research and publishing at a high level and in a manner that influenced policy and provided thought leadership. He authored many books for the FAO and the World Bank, including most recently Strengthening Agricultural Extension and Advisory Services: Procedures for Assessing, Transforming and Evaluating Extension Systems (2010), which is available in several languages.

“Burt kept up a very wide international network of colleagues. He was often fielding an inquiry from someone abroad who reached out to him for advice or to ask a question,” McNamara says.

Swanson was also known for his powerful work ethic.

“I remember working with Burt on an extension assessment mission in Liberia in 2011. Burt always finished up a long day of field work and interviews with hours of rewriting notes on his laptop late into the evening. The end result was a very useful and organized contribution to our assessment reports,” McNamara says.

Swanson contributed much to the College of ACES and ACES International. In addition to the projects he procured and the work he produced, he was a great supporter of his colleagues, taking the time to encourage them and nominating them for awards.

“He was especially interested in international students and in helping young people from the United States get a bigger picture of the world through travel and experiences like the Peace Corps. He inspired many colleagues and students to pursue their own projects in the international arena,” McNamara says.

Swanson’s legacy will live on in all people he inspired and within the communities he helped.  

An international study abroad scholarship, The Burt Swanson Scholarship in Rural Development, has been established in his memory. For questions about the scholarship contact Matthew Smith, To make a gift send to Univ. of Illinois Ill. Foundation, P.O. Box 734500, Chicago, Ill., 60673, fund #11774812. On line, fund #11774812

Read Burton Swanson’s obituary here.