Farm Progress

Tom Vilsack’s heartfelt farewell, presentation of Borlaug Medallion and Pearl Harbor Day stir memories.

January 6, 2017

6 Min Read
HONORED: At a ceremony at the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack (center) was presented the Borlaug Medallion by the World Food Prize Foundation. He is flanked by Ambassador Ken Quinn (left) and World Food Prize chairman John Ruan.

In addition to being the 75th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor, Dec. 7, 2016, stirred other memories for me. And for U.S. Ag Secretary Tom Vilsack and my daughter, Catherine.

First, I remember Pearl Harbor Day every year. I wasn’t there when the Japanese attacked the U.S. Naval fleet in 1941, bringing the U.S. into World War II. I wasn’t born yet. But I heard the stories growing up in the 1960s and 1970s, listening to my dad who served, and my grandpa and uncles and others who served and farmed during those times. They all had interesting stories about the war. My dad recalled listening to the radio announcers describe “a date which will live in infamy,” as he milked cows in the barn the day the Japanese attacked our Navy ships anchored in the harbor of the Hawaiian Islands. Like many farm boys, soon he would be marching off to war and sailing on ships.

Vilsack gives memorable farewell
Fast-forward to Dec. 7, 2016. I started that morning covering Tom Vilsack’s speech, the keynote address to the Iowa Farm Bureau annual meeting in Des Moines. Vilsack served eight years as governor of Iowa and is now wrapping up his eight-year tenure as U.S. ag secretary in the Obama administration. Tom Vilsack is one of the longest-serving ag secretaries ever, as was his hero, former U.S. Ag Secretary Henry A. Wallace, who served in Franklin Roosevelt’s cabinet and was vice president during World War II.

At the close of his speech to the Farm Bureau, Vilsack gave an emotional farewell. “People ask me why I’ve stayed so long at USDA. The answer is simple. I love the people I work for and those I work with,” Vilsack said. “It’s been an extraordinary honor. I’ve been blessed. And I realize I owe a lot of it to the hardworking farmers and ranchers of this country. As long as I live, I will be forever grateful.”

Borlaug Medallion recipient
After his Farm Bureau speech, Vilsack spent about 15 minutes in a press conference answering questions. Then he hurried down the street, several blocks away to the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates in downtown Des Moines. There in a special ceremony, he was awarded the Norman Borlaug Medallion by the World Food Prize Foundation.

Borlaug, an Iowa farm boy who went on to become a leading plant breeder and scientist, is known as the Father of the Green Revolution. He founded the World Food Prize in 1986 to honor people for their outstanding efforts to increase the quantity and quality of food to fight world hunger.

Ambassador Ken Quinn, president of the WFP Foundation, explained that the Borlaug Medallion was created to recognize institutions not eligible to receive the World Food Prize itself. Quinn said, “This medallion is being presented today to honor the U.S. Department of Agriculture for its extraordinary development and promotion of American farming for over 150 years. In the 10,000-year history of human agriculture, there is arguably no other organization that has done more to expand the knowledge of, and enhance the science involved in, food production than USDA.”

Helping inspire next generation
Quinn said he was very pleased to present the medallion to Vilsack as one of the longest-serving ag secretaries in American history. “In addition, Sec. Vilsack is deserving of special recognition for all he has done as governor of Iowa and secretary of agriculture to preserve the Borlaug legacy, promote the World Food Prize and especially to help inspire the next generation of young ag leaders, a mission dear to Norman Borlaug’s heart.”

At the ceremony, Vilsack and Quinn also signed a memorandum of understanding to strengthen the partnership of the World Food Prize and USDA and by extending the Wallace-Carver Fellowship program through 2021.

Wallace-Carver Fellowship program
The program offers college students the opportunity to work with world-renowned scientists and policymakers through paid internships at leading USDA research centers and offices across the U.S. The interns also participate in a high-level, weeklong Wallace-Carver Leadership Symposium at USDA in Washington, D.C., hosted by the U.S. secretary of agriculture.

The symposium is an opportunity for the students to examine key domestic and global challenges, and explore exciting career opportunities to help improve agriculture, the economy, human health and nutrition, the environment, and scientific research through public service. Since its inception in 2011, a total of 151 students have served as Wallace-Carver fellows.

Fulfilling the shared vision of Vilsack and Borlaug of inspiring the next generation of American scientific and humanitarian leaders, the USDA and the World Food Prize partnered to create the Wallace-Carver Fellowship.

Named for Henry A. Wallace and George Washington Carver, two of the great American leaders in ag science and policy, who made significant strides toward ending hunger in the 20th century, the Wallace-Carver Fellowship seeks to educate, inspire and train the next generation of agricultural leaders.

Thanks to Vilsack’s vision, program thrives
Catherine Swoboda, director of planning for the World Food Prize, then spoke. She was a member of the first class of graduates of the Wallace-Carver Fellowship program, when it was established in 2011. “There were 13 of us that year,” she said.

Swoboda added, “I am here today, joined by eight other Wallace-Carver fellows, to thank you Mr. Secretary, on behalf of the 151 young men and women from across the country who, thanks to your vision and leadership, have had the privilege to participate in this remarkable program.”

She said the 151 fellows represent 67 colleges and universities, 32 states and the District of Columbia. And 67% of the fellows are young women, and over 30% are racial and ethnic minorities. “But there is one thing that all of us have in common: 96% of the students who have come through the Wallace-Carver fellowship are going into agriculture or STEM degrees and careers. You are truly shaping the next generation of leaders in our country.

“I became a Borlaug-Ruan international intern serving in Brazil, Swoboda said, “and we have Borlaug-Ruan interns with us here today. However, it was the Wallace-Carver Fellowship and the exposure I had at USDA to the food and agriculture issues and challenges that will define our century that brought me back to the World Food Prize to help build education programs to inspire the next generation of leaders in food security.”

“So I know, first-hand, the profound impact the Wallace-Carver Fellowship can have on a young person,” she said.

‘Think big, think bold’
Swoboda thanked Vilsack for signing the memorandum of understanding and continuing the Wallace-Carver program. She asked the former and current interns who were in the audience to please stand and be recognized.

In his closing comments, Vilsack challenged the students to improve the world’s political stability through food security. “I’m challenging you to think big, to think bold. To think like Norman Borlaug did. Ask yourself: How can I help? How can I be part of the solution? How can I bridge the gap between those who understand agriculture and those who don’t? How can I make a safer world through agriculture? How can I help feed the hungry? How can I be a great humanitarian?”

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