Curiosity led John Waelti from a bucolic dairy farm in southern Wisconsin to the high desert of New Mexico, and an enduring interest in agriculture and a love for the Land of Enchantment ignited. The former chair of NMSU’s Agricultural Economics Department never pictured himself as a westerner, but once he set foot in Las Cruces, he found it hard to leave.
A grandchild of Swiss immigrants, Waelti grew up in Wisconsin cheese country raising dairy cattle and hogs. He milked cows during the day and played polkas on his accordion at night – an iconic Wisconsin upbringing. As he observed the tireless days his family and the neighboring farmers put into their occupation with little return, he questioned if it was worth it.
“Back in the 1950s, there were farm surpluses,” he says. “Farmers worked really hard and yet the incomes and prices were so low. It left me wondering, why is this happening?” Waelti pondered this conundrum throughout his youth, eventually leading him to study agricultural economics.
As a child of the pre-television era, Waelti loved the westerns at the Saturday matinees starring his childhood heroes Roy Rogers, Gene Autry and Red Ryder. When he was 11, his family took a trip to visit a cousin in Arizona. As he watched the open prairies dotted with grazing cattle and rugged plateaus flash past the windows of their 1939 Pontiac, he became fascinated with New Mexico. “I liked the sunshine and warm weather,” he remembers thinking at the time.
But his life in the Land of Enchantment was still several years away. Like most teens, Waelti wasn’t sure what he wanted to do after high school graduation. During the mid-1950s, two years of military service was expected of all able-bodied males — and was a way to avoid making immediate life decisions. Influenced by the WWII movie Battle Cry, in 1955 he enlisted in the Marine Corps.
Fast forward four months, and after a grueling boot camp and infantry training, Waelti awoke one morning alone in his Quonset hut while the rest of his company was on guard duty. He realized that if he could get through this, he could do anything — maybe even go to college.
After Waelti completed active duty and was released in 1958, he set off for the University of Wisconsin College of Agriculture to begin a new adventure. During his sophomore year, Waelti took two economics courses, and everything clicked. His experience growing up on the family farm led him to believe that a degree in agricultural economics could help him understand problems related to agriculture, food, resources and economic development.
After completing his bachelor’s degree, Waelti received an offer for financial assistance to study for a master’s in agricultural economics at the University of Arizona.
He and his fiancée wed in the summer of 1962 and started a new life in Tucson. A year later, with his M.S. in hand and seeking a doctorate from the University of California at Berkeley, Waelti and his wife journeyed further west. Waelti completed his Ph.D. in 1967 and decided to teach ag econ at the college level.
As the Baby Boomers flocked to college in the mid-1960s, Waelti had several outstanding opportunities. Longing to return closer to home, his wife and new baby daughter accompanied him back to the heartland where he would become an assistant professor of agricultural economics at the University of Minnesota.
He stayed at Minnesota for 23 years, including a stint where he was on loan to the federal government as advisor to the assistant secretary of the Army for civil works. He also took leave from 1986 to 1988 to serve as a visiting professor at the University of Nairobi in Kenya.
Seeking a new and challenging opportunity, Waelti noticed a job posting in the American Agricultural Economics Association newsletter for an agricultural economics department head at New Mexico State University. He applied, hoping to return to the state that charmed him as a child. Happily, NMSU Dean of Agriculture John Owens offered him the job.
Along with the position of department head were some agricultural extension duties, giving Waelti the chance to travel around the state and get to know it better. One of his cherished experiences came early on in a collaboration with Karen Becklin, Kathy Brook (who became Associate Dean of the College of Business) and Jim Peach (who later became a Regents Professor) on a New Mexico First taxation project.
Waelti welcomed the challenge of representing his faculty while carrying out administration policies. Many of his colleagues received awards for their teaching and research thanks to his recommendations. He remains connected with several of his fellow NMSU faculty members.
After 11 years at NMSU, he left in 2001 to become head of the Department of Agricultural Economics at Sultan Qaboos University in Oman. He had always welcomed foreign assignments and especially enjoyed his four years on the Arabian Peninsula, but never gave up his love for NMSU and the New Mexico southwest.
After retiring from his teaching career, he returned to Minnesota and turned his economic sense toward philanthropy. “New Mexico and NMSU have been very good to me, and the least I can do is give something back,” he says. In 2022, Waelti established a charitable gift annuity (CGA) with the NMSU Foundation, which means that, in return for his donation, he can expect a payment for the rest of his life. After his passing, the NMSU Foundation can use funds remaining in the annuity for priority needs.
He sees it as a win/win/win. “I donate the appreciated stock worth more than it cost; I receive an immediate tax break for my contribution; and the Foundation ultimately gets to use the donation as it likes after my death” he notes. In his case, Waelti gets an 8.3 percent return on the value of his contribution based on his age, and the government gets its taxes on the capital gains over time. “A charitable gift annuity is one of the best ways to give something in return, and I’m grateful for the opportunity and eager to contribute.”
He still owns an adobe in romantic Old Mesilla. And while he doesn’t need an excuse to visit, it gives him a chance to catch up with NMSU colleagues and friends. Like the sandhill cranes, he heads across the Great Plains to New Mexico at least once a year — and maybe when he finally retires, he will sink his roots in the American Southwest.