Obituary: James B. Johnson

Posted at 11:13 AM, Feb 23, 2021
and last updated 2021-02-23 13:13:19-05

James B. Johnson, an agricultural economist whose expertise on farm and ranch conservation programs was recognized internationally, died November 17, 2020, in Bozeman from complications from COVID pneumonia. He was 77.

A professor emeritus in Montana State University’s Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics and an Extension economist, Jim worked throughout Montana, the Northern Great Plains and across the globe to better the livelihoods of scores of farmers and ranchers. He also served as a mentor to an untold number of MSU students. Known for his dry sense of humor, Jim never knew a stranger. He was always ready to help any friend in need, from a student needing a place to stay to a neighbor requiring help with a project.

Jim was born on Thanksgiving Day, November 26, 1942, in Sargent, Nebraska. Shortly after, his family moved to a dairy farm in Ontario, Oregon where he was raised. He won a scholarship to study agriculture at Oregon State University, graduating with a bachelor’s degree in 1964. While working on a summer federal project in Portland, Oregon, Jim met the former Lorna Beachell. The couple were married on June 19, 1964, and moved to West Lafayette, Indiana, where Jim earned his master’s degree from Purdue University. He returned to Oregon State University to earn his doctorate in agricultural economics while he concurrently worked as an agricultural economist with the USDA’s Economic Research Service focusing on economic efficiency in the cattle feeding and wheat sectors of Pacific Northwest agriculture. The USDA transferred the Johnsons, which by then included son Mark, to Michigan State University where Jim traveled the world assessing agricultural production potential in 33 developing countries, ranging from Syria to Nicaragua.

Confirmed Westerners, the Johnsons looked to move closer to home and Jim joined the MSU Department of Agricultural Economics and Economics in September of 1982. He also accepted short-term assignments in the 1990’s to teach principles of American agricultural economic and financial management to farmers in Poland and Russia who were then migrating to a market economy. In 2004 the Western Agricultural Economics Association honored Jim with its Outstanding Extension Program Career Award. Jim became a professor emeritus in 2005, continuing to serve as a consultant for agricultural policy education throughout the region. During the last dozen years of his career he was also involved in mentoring students in MSU’s Follow the Grain seminar.

Fellow MSU economist Vince Smith said that Jim’s work improved the management practices of thousands of farmers and ranchers in Montana and other Northern Great Plains states, all of whom viewed Jim as their friend as well as an expert on whose insights they relied to make their operations more efficient and environmentally and financially sound. Additionally, Jim’s mentoring of hundreds of MSU students helped them to understand the opportunities that agriculture and agribusiness offered, empowering them to make transformative choices that have led to many successful careers.

Enthusiastic and frequent travelers, Jim and Lorna traveled throughout the Americas, including every state and Canadian province and Mexico. One of the mainstays of the Mystic Heights neighborhood south of Bozeman, the Johnson’s opened their home to a wide array of traveling friends, colleagues and students who needed a good meal or a temporary place to live and who then became part of the family. Jim was an avid golfer and Bobcat football and basketball fan.

Jim is survived by his wife, Lorna, of Bozeman; son, Mark and his partner Jolyn Todd of Sheridan, Montana, grandson Jhett Johnson of Bozeman, sister Judy (Eldon) Foster of Portland, Oregon, and nephews AJ (Kathy) Armstrong, Todd (Anne) Foster, Troy Foster, and niece Amy (Phil) Faucheux. He is also survived by many other great nieces and nephews, cousins and their family members. He was preceded in death by his parents Rubie and Lloyd Johnson and a sister and brother-in-law, Jan and Don Armstrong.

The family thanks Dr. Andrew Sullivan and the nurses and caregivers in the Bozeman Health intensive care unit for their compassionate care of Jim.

An MSU memorial scholarship has been established in James B. Johnson’s honor. Memorials may be sent to MSU Alumni Foundation, # 91765, PO Box 172750, Bozeman, MT 59717.

A virtual memorial service was held at 11 a.m. Saturday, Dec. 5, 2020. Dokken-Nelson is in charge of the arrangements. Please see for a copy of the webcast link to watch this service remotely.