Farrell was born Jan. 17, 1927, in South Mountain, Ontario, Canada, and grew up on a small farm. After graduating high school, he became a high school teacher in a one-room school in Ontario. He went on to enroll in college at the University of Toronto–Ontario Agricultural College at Guelph, where he earned a bachelor's degree in agricultural economics. He later earned his master's degree and Ph.D., both in agricultural economics, from Iowa State University.
In 1957, Farrell joined UC Cooperative Extension, working on agricultural marketing and agricultural policy with the Giannini Foundation at UC Berkeley. He also undertook a variety of administrative assignments focused on strengthening Cooperative Extension. His work was punctuated the following decade by a year's study at the University of Naples (Italy) on a Fulbright Fellowship and several short-term assignments with the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
He left UC in 1971 to head the USDA Economic Research Service in Washington, D.C. In 1981, he left federal service to found the National Center for Food and Agricultural Policy at Resources for the Future in Washington, D.C. Funded by the Kellogg, Ford and Rockefeller Foundations, the center was a first-of-its-kind independent, nonpartisan group devoted to the analysis of national agricultural and natural resource policy issues.
In his role as a UC vice president from 1987 to 1995, Farrell oversaw the Agricultural Experiment Station, located on the Berkeley, Davis and Riverside campuses, and Cooperative Extension, located statewide in California counties.
“Ken Farrell was a person of rare integrity and courage,” said Henry Vaux, Jr., who served as associate vice president to Farrell. “His successful efforts to decentralize Cooperative Extension and to make the research and outreach activities of the Division of Agriculture and Natural Resources more seamless benefited California's citizens and its agricultural sector enormously. His leadership proved crucial in positioning the Division to remain effective in the subsequent era of declining resources.”
Over the course of his career he authored more than 100 professional papers and articles on his work in agricultural policy, natural resources, international trade and marketing. He received many honors, including elections as president of the Agricultural and Applied Economics Association in 1977 and as fellow in 1980. In 1992 he was elected fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and in 2004 his undergraduate alma mater, the University of Guelph–Ontario Agricultural College, established the Kenneth R. Farrell Distinguished Public Policy Lectureship in his honor.
“Ken was a leader among his peers. He always stood his ground,” said Gordon Rausser, Robert Gordon Sproul Distinguished Professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics and former dean of the College of Natural Resources at UC Berkeley.
In retirement, Farrell consulted for the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the World Bank, assignments that took him to Armenia, Georgia and Azerbaijan. He also organized “People-to-People” trips to study agriculture in Cuba, Peru, Chile, Australia and New Zealand, and two such trips to China.
Farrell's wife of over 60 years, Mary, preceded him in death in 2013. He is survived by six children, eight grandchildren and three great-grandchildren.
A memorial gathering in honor of Farrell will be held at Creekside Clubhouse, 1010 Stanley Dollar Drive, Rossmoor, Walnut Creek, at 3 p.m. on Saturday, March 8. In lieu of flowers, the family asks that donations be made to Heifer International (http://www.heifer.org), a charity focused on ending hunger and poverty and promoting food security, or to a charity of choice.