When we teach about scientific and technological advances in agriculture, we often mention Cyrus McCormick, Eli Whitney, John Deere, George Washington Carver, and similar pioneers. Do we mention Norman Borlaug and his contributions to the world of agriculture and to humanity? We should. After all, his formal agricultural training started in a vocational agriculture classroom in Cresco, Iowa, and reveals the influence of an agriculture teacher.
In the Beginning
Norman Borlaug was born on a farm near Cresco, Iowa (this area is known locally as Little Norway and is a few miles from Minnesota) in 1914. Until he was 8 years old, Norman and his parents lived on a 120-acre farm with his grandparents. As a child, he worked in the fields (corn, oats, and clover) and helped care for the livestock. When he was eight years old, his father bought an adjoining farm and the family moved there.
Norm started school when he was five years old by walking 1 ½ miles each way to a one-room rural school. During his first year in this school, he pleaded to stay home and work, but his grandfather said (Hesser, 2006, p. 8), “…it’s better to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later.” His grandfather also admonished Norman to “Get yourself a good education. No one can that away from you.”
During Norman’s last year at the one-room rural school, the family decided he should go to high school in Cresco, 14 miles away. Going on to high school was not the standard practice in Norman’s community, especially for boys. There were no school buses to transport the students, so getting to school was a problem. Several neighborhood boys took turns driving their families Model T Fords to Cresco. They would leave early in the morning and get back home a little before dark.
Norman enrolled in vocational agriculture at Cresco High School. His agriculture teacher was Harry Schroeder, a recent graduate of Iowa State. Mr. Schroeder sensed that Norman “…had a keen mind and an innate curiosity about the processes of plant growth and the nature of soils. (Hesser, 2006, p. 12). Norman stated that “Under Mr. Schroeder’s direction, our crops class set upon the first on-farm chemical fertilizer tests on hybrid corn in Howard County (Hesser, 2006, p. 12).
Figure 1. Photo of Harry Schroeder from the 1932 Cresco High School Yearbook.
At times his last name was spelled Schroder and at times Schroeder
Norman was not a member of the FFA because it did not exist at Cresco High School. The school would not receive an FFA charter until 1933, one year after Norman graduated. However, Norman was a member of the Cresco High School Ag Club. which was the forerunner of the FFA at Cresco.
Figure 2. The 1932 Cresco Yearbook shows Norman in the back row
of the Ag Club photo.
Mr. Schroeder and the high school principal, David Bartelma both had a major influence on Norman. Mr. Batelma also served as the school’s athletic coach and convinced Norman to join the school’s wrestling squad. Norman excelled as a wrestler and was a star football and baseball player.
Figure 3. Cresco High Wrestling team in 1932. Note that the ag teacher, Mr. Schroeder was also a wrestling coach. Borlaug is in the 4th row.
When Norman graduated from Cresco High School in 1932 he was awarded the Legion Citizenship medal for his courage, character, service, and scholarship. He also received the school’s Athletic Medal (Hesser, 2006). Because of the great depression, Norman decided to lay out a year before going to college so he could save money. During this year he cut oak fence posts, worked for neighbors, and trapped for muskrat, mink, and skunks during the winter months.
Becoming an Agricultural Scientist
Norman had planned to enroll at Iowa State in the fall of 1933 to become a science teacher and coach. However, a former high school friend who was playing football at the University of Minnesota (UM) convinced Normal to accompany him to UM for the start of football practice. If Norman didn’t like UM he could always hitchhike back to Iowa and enroll at Iowa State.
Norman landed a job at the University Coffee Shop upon arrival in Minnesota. During his second week in Minneapolis, he took a streetcar to the agricultural campus in St. Paul (about 5 miles from the main campus). He liked what he saw and then made the decision to enroll in the College of Agriculture.
However, Norman failed the entrance exam required of all out of state students. The meager one-room elementary school and the paltry array of courses in his rural Iowa high school did not adequately prepare him for college. The agriculture classes at Cresco were two hours in length so field trips could be taken. This prevented Norman from taking additional courses that might have prepared him for college.
Norman was not happy that he had not been admitted to the University, but the University had recently created a new General College for students like him. Norman enrolled in the General College and did well. Based upon his success in the General College, he was admitted to the College of Agriculture to study forestry. He was also recruited to be on the University wrestling team where he excelled. He played a major role in recruiting his high school wrestling coach to become the wrestling coach at the University of Minnesota.
After graduating with his B.S. degree in 1937, he was offered an assistantship to study plant pathology and work on his master’s degree which he obtained in 1940. Norman was then offered an instructorship position and was able to work on a doctoral degree in plant pathology. During his graduate work, he also coached the freshman wrestling team.
While writing his doctoral dissertation he was offered a position in Wilmington, Delaware with Dupont to be the head of a biochemical lab to research agricultural chemicals. He accepted the position and finished his doctoral dissertation (in 1942) while working for DuPont.
Norman enjoyed his work with DuPont but was offered a unique challenge in 1944. The Rockefeller Foundation, with urging from the American Vice President, Henry Wallace, decided to establish an aggressive research program to improve agriculture in Mexico. Four dedicated and competent agricultural scientists would cooperate with Mexico’s Ministry of Agriculture to develop improved plant varieties, primarily corn and wheat. Because of Borlaug’s expertise in plant pathology and plant breeding he was recruited to be part of this expert team (Hesser, 2006). Dupont offered to double his salary to keep him, but Borlaug was driven by his desire to help others.
Within 10 years of arriving in Mexico Norman had crossed thousands of wheat varieties to find those resistant to the rust disease, had started a “shuttle breeding” program to cut in half the time to get results, and had re-engineered the wheat plant to be short instead of tall and spindly. Norman took a hands-on approach to his work and spent innumerable hours in the field working with plants.
Norman encountered some resistance from the Mexican scientist with whom he worked. These scientific colleagues believed they were just to come up with the research plans and ideas and let the “peons” do the actual work in the fields. Hesser reports (2006, p. 43):
The normally calm Dr. Borlaug lost his temper and raised his voice. “That’s why the farmers have no respect for you. If you don’t know how to do something properly yourself, how can you possibly advise them? If the peons give you false information, you wouldn’t even know. No, this has to change. Until we master our own efforts, we will get nowhere in this project.”
Norm got his point across. From that day on, the Mexican scientists worked in the field side by side with Borlaug.
Figure 4. Borlaug with colleagues in Mexico.
Norman also had to fight with the Rockefeller Foundation officials at times about the best way to conduct his research program. They did not understand the nuances and difficulties of conducting research in Mexico. Borlaug stood his ground for what he knew was right.
One example of Norman standing his ground dealt with his “shuttle breeding” idea. Typically plant breeders get one crop a year. By planting wheat in central Mexico, harvesting it, and then planting those seeds in northern Mexico (700 miles away) in the same year, one could get two crops in one year. The Rockefeller advisors did not think this idea would succeed because of the climatic differences and the erroneous belief that seeds needed a rest period after harvesting. Norman stood his ground, even threatening to resign, and got approval to try this idea. It was a success.
Figure 5. The two locations in Mexico involved in shuttle breeding of wheat.
Norman continued to work on improving wheat for decades. Because of his work, Mexico began to export wheat in 1963. In 1963 the Rockefeller Foundation sent Borlaug to India to continue his work. His efforts were replicated in Pakistan and India. Between 1965 and 1970 wheat yields in these two countries doubled. Norman’s work led to what is known as the Green Revolution. His efforts lead to increased food security around the globe. Later his efforts were replicated in Africa.
Figure 6. Graphic evidence of the results of Borlaug’s work.
In Easterbrooks’s 1977 article “Forgotten Benefactors of Humanity” he states that the “form of agriculture that Borlaug preaches may have prevented a billion deaths.”
The Nobel Peace Prize
In 1970 Norman was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his contributions to the world food supply which helped alleviate war. So, the title of this Footnote is correct — Former Vo-Ag Student Wins Nobel Peace Prize. It all started with a vocational agriculture teacher in Cresco, Iowa. Norman has received numerous other honors and awards which are listed in a Wikipedia article.
Borlaug retired in 1979 but continued conducting research in Mexico in the spring at the International Wheat Improvement Program and taught in the fall at Texas A&M University (he served as a distinguished professor of International Agriculture at Texas A&M University from 1984-2009). He died in 2009 from complications of cancer at the age of 95 in Dallas, Texas.
Figure 7. Norman E. Borlaug, Nobel Peace Prize winner – a former vocational agriculture student.
There are numerous take-home messages from studying Norman Borlaug.
You don’t have to be born into a privileged class to make an impact on the world. Norman’s parents were poor farmers. After high school graduation Norman worked odd jobs for a year to earn money to go to college. He worked his way through college. He didn’t come from a privileged background yet made an impact on the world.
As educators, we need to encourage and work with all students regardless of their backgrounds. At times I am concerned that we pay more attention to the children of the well-to-do and less to those who come from less fortunate circumstances. Let’s resolve to be equal opportunity educators.
Don’t take no as the final answer. When Norm failed the entrance exam to the University of Minnesota, he was extremely disappointed, and that decision bothered him for years. However, he persevered and eventually was admitted to the University.
We may have students who are denied admission to the college they want to attend. I see this more and more as some of our land-grant universities have adopted an elitist approach in their admissions. It seems some land-grants have forgotten the original mandate contained in the Morrill Act was to serve the “industrial classes.”
Encourage your students to consider the community college for a year or so and then transfer to the college of their choice. It is more economical for your students and it is typically an easier route to college admission.
Stand up for your beliefs. When Borlaug’s scientific colleagues in Mexico didn’t want to get their hands dirty doing the fieldwork, Norman admonished them to do so. When the Rockefeller Foundation was against his “shuttle breeding” program he stood his ground. In the immortal words of Davy Crockett “Be sure you’re right-then go ahead.”
Teachers affect eternity. The impact of an agriculture teacher, in this case, Harry Schroeder of Cresco, Iowa, was remarkable. His student, Norman E. Borlaug made an impact on the world. How many students are currently in your classes who might make an impact on the world?
Over the holidays I received messages from two former students who are both teaching agriculture who thanked me for the impact I made on their lives. I am sure many of you have received similar messages. We do make a difference.
Henry Adams stated, “A teacher affects eternity, he [or she] can never tell where his [or her] influence stops.”
A special thanks to Melanie Berndtson, an Agriscience Teacher at Wellsboro Area High School in Pennsylvania for suggesting a Footnote be written about Norman Borlaug.
Easterbrook, Gregg (January, 1997). Forgotten Benefactor of Humanity. The Atlantic.
Hesser, Leon (2006). The Man Who Fed the World. Durban House: Dallas.