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Borlaug: Hands that helped him

By now, most farmers have heard the story of Norman E. Borlaug, the scientist who saved millions of people from starvation by developing higher-yielding wheat varieties that could be planted in third-world countries.

Borlaug, who died in September at age 95, received the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Congressional Gold Medal and countless other awards for his contributions to the fight against hunger.

What most may not know is how close his story came to not happening. Throughout his career, as related in Noel Vietmeyer’s biographical series, Borlaug, the scientist received helping hands that put him in a position to make a difference in the lives of millions.

Borlaug was born at a time when life on the Iowa prairie and in much of the United States was tenuous. When it entered World War I, three years after Borlaug was born, no one was sure the country would have enough food because black stem rust had wiped out the predominant wheat variety grown in the U.S. in 1916.

Borlaug’s parents, Vietmeyer writes, were basically subsistence farmers whose livelihoods depended on the success of their corn crop. Borlaug, himself, could have followed that life if a cousin who was the local school teacher hadn’t persuaded his parents to allow him to leave the farm and go to high school.

In his freshman year at the University of Minnesota in 1933, Borlaug was on the brink of having to return to Iowa when a benefactor found him a job cleaning the professors’ labs. That allowed him to pay his tuition and, more importantly, to buy food. (Borlaug’s future wife, Margaret, dropped out of the university in 1935 to become a proofreader because she was “tired of being hungry.”)

In 1936, when Borlaug again faced the prospect of leaving school because he was broke, he got a job with the Civilian Conservation Corps that paid him $100 a month. (Borlaug hitchhiked from Minnesota to New Haven, Conn., to get to the job.)

Although it was much criticized at the time, the CCC gave thousands of young men an opportunity to earn money and to make a difference through conservation projects. A side effect, not frequently noted in the history books, is that it also helped prepare America’s youth for World War II.

Such programs allowed Borlaug to complete his degree at Minnesota and to become a research scientist with DuPont. From there, with the encouragement of a former professor, he joined an agricultural research program being conducted by the Rockefeller Foundation in Mexico.

Borlaug spent 13 years planting two crops per year developing wheat varieties that could double Mexican farmers’ yields and later increase production in India and Pakistan to levels unseen before. But most of the world now knows that story.


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