Development & Alumni Relations Office 


Gerald Walter Furness (Died 2019)


Obituary submitted by Gerald’s daughters, Kay and Sara, and is available to view in the Journal of Agricultural Economics, Vol. 71, No. 2, 2


Gerry Furness was born at Firs Farm, Ringinglow near Sheffield on 23 February 1929, at that time in the East Riding, now in South Yorkshire. He attended Ecclesall Primary School and won a scholarship to King Edwards School in Sheffield which he attended through the Second World War; obtaining the scholarship was a remarkable achievement given that Gerry suffered severely from asthma, compounded by allergies to cow and horse hair and had a lot of absences from school.


He went on to study Agricultural Economics at Leeds University where he obtained his first degree and diploma. In 1953 Professor Watt Thomas, a Professor at Leeds who had been appointed to a post in Manchester, took Gerry with him as a junior lecturer. It was at Manchester University, on 8 August 1953, that Gerry met his wife to be Margaret Barton, who was working in the Agricultural Economics department. Gerry was immediately smitten. He was particularly admiring of her hard work, sense of humour and ability to create order even when dealing with academics! He maintained that he was never bored for the rest of his life. They had two daughters, Kay and Sara.


In 1962 Gerry was appointed to a teaching post in Seale Hayne Agricultural College, near Newton Abbott in Devon. The family enjoyed the long sunny days but Gerry found the vision of the college at that time, along with living on college grounds, to be too restrictive.


In 1967 Gerry was appointed to the post of Deputy Chief Agricultural Economist in what was then the Ministry of Agriculture in Northern Ireland and at the same time to a lecturing post in the Faculty of Agriculture of Queen’s University Belfast. Gerry was attracted to this joint post as he thought that the knowledge gained from working at the Ministry would inform his teaching at the University. The linkage between the Ministry and the University Faculty was somewhat unique within the UK, whereby the Ministry provided the funding and the staffing for the Faculty. Within the Ministry, following UK accession to the European Community (EC) in 1973, he played a major role in establishing the Farm Accountancy Data Network (FADN) for the UK which facilitated return of UK farm income data to the EC. The fact that the Northern Ireland region consistently managed to return its data before other UK regions gave Gerry quiet satisfaction and bragging rights alongside the other UK agriculture departments. Gerry was responsible in the late 1970s for establishing the annual ‘Farm Data Handbook’ for Northern Ireland, which became an indispensable support to farm advisory officers when engaged in farm planning exercises and is still in existence.


Gerry succeeded Harold Shemilt as Chief Agricultural Economist in 1976, in what had become the Department of Agriculture; and was appointed Professor of Agricultural Economics in Queen’s University. In his university role he lectured principally in his specialist area, Farm Business Economics and Management. He was required to give a public Inaugural Lecture and chose as his main theme ‘The Farmer’s Share’. At that time this was a topic of widespread discussion and debate within the UK and it attracted considerable interest. The issue he addressed was the share of the final retail price of food products that accrued to farmers on the one hand, and on the other hand, to the downstream sectors, principally the processors, wholesalers and retailers. Gerry concluded that the farmer’s share seemed disproportionately low given the many risks surrounding agricultural production. Debates on this issue continued for many years after Gerry’s lecture.


Another major piece of Gerry’s work was a paper, ‘Some Features of Farm Income and Structure Variation in Regions of the UK’, published in the Journal of Agricultural Economics in September 1982. In this paper Gerry explored the factors accounting for the differences in farm income growth amongst the four countries of the UK. His main conclusion was that the differences were due mainly to variations in farm types and structures within the four countries.


One of Gerry’s major achievements within the Queen’s Faculty was the establishment of a BSc degree programme in Agricultural Economics and Management in 1987. This was a major enhancement to the Faculty degree programmes and proved to be very successful, producing graduates who have risen to key leadership roles within the worlds of academe, government and the private sector. He took great interest in the students he lectured to and tutored and years after they graduated he could recall their names and how they had performed as students.


Gerry particularly enjoyed foreign travel as part of his work. He visited all countries in the European Community after it was established in 1973 and most notably went to Russia during the Cold War.


In 1975, he visited Afghanistan for the Food and Agricultural Organisation of the United Nations to work on a major irrigation scheme for crop growth. He was bitterly disappointed when the Russians invaded Afghanistan as he felt that his research had been wasted. He also visited the Sudan to give advice to the Faculty of Agriculture in Khartoum on their curriculum development and a joint-research link was established. In 1984/5, when the famine occurred in the Sudan, the success of the University research on indigenous fermented foods led to substantial funding from the Band Aid organisation for further work on famine survival foods.


In his leadership role within the Economics and Statistics Division of the Department of Agriculture Gerry was generally regarded as a very approachable boss who could always be relied upon to offer constructive suggestions and support. He was particularly supportive of young staff that had recently joined his division. He had a great ability to edit publications quickly and thoughtfully, generally resulting in significant improvements. His colleagues within the administrative divisions held him in high regard as the Department’s Chief Agricultural Economist.


Gerry carried a huge workload, on the one hand as Chief Economist in the Department of Agriculture and on the other as Professor of Agricultural and Food Economics in the Queen’s University Faculty. The latter included a period as Dean of the Faculty from 1984 to 1987. All of this required enormous dedication and a superhuman effort which only someone with Gerry’s motivation, ability and stamina could possibly have undertaken. He is fondly remembered by all who worked with and studied under him.


Gerry was a true gentleman, widely respected by all who knew him. He remained a proud Yorkshire man who instilled the values of hard work and organisation. He was a keen supporter of Sheffield Wednesday Football Club and a cricket fan. On his retirement in 1989 he and Margaret moved to Hathersage in Derbyshire, England, to the bungalow that Gerry’s parents had also retired to in 1972. He became heavily involved in local community work, particularly in support of his local school and church.


Gerry’s unbounded enthusiasm, work ethic and professionalism made a huge and lasting contribution to the development of agricultural economics in Northern Ireland, within both the government and university sectors.

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