State Highway 9 is a two lane strip of asphalt that cuts across the northernmost tier of counties in Iowa, from Larchwood to Lansing. If you drive its 320 miles, as I have done many times, you will not be dissuaded from the stereotype of Iowa as a flat boring expanse of cornfields. The few points of interest include Lake Okoboji and the headquarters of Winnebago in Forest City. It takes you near Mason City, the model for "River City" in Meredith Willson's The Music Man, and the site of the plane crash that claimed Buddy Holly after a February 1959 concert at the Surf Ballroom in Clear Lake. About an hour of cornfields east of there, when you reach the outskirts of Cresco, you will see a sign welcoming you to the hometown of Norman Borlaug.
There's something striking in the modesty of the sign, celebrating a native son who went on to win a Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal. Borlaug shares billing on it with the five US Navy admirals born in Cresco, along with Ellen Church, "The First Airline Stewardess." But it is somehow fitting for a man whose humility belied a life of astonishing achievement.
Norman Borlaug died Saturday at 95, leaving a humanitarian legacy equaled by few in history. By some estimates his life's work saved over a billion human beings from starvation. That life work was farming, and it took him from a 106 acre spread outside Cresco to grain fields around the planet.
In many respects Norman Borlaug was the quintessential Iowan -- the tough, humble Norwegian Lutheran kid who grew up splitting time between farm chores and small town playing fields. At Cresco High he played baseball, football and wrestled. His skills as a grappler earned him a spot on the University of Minnesota varsity team and eventual induction into the National Wrestling Hall of Fame. We Iowa fans would have preferred he stayed home and wrestled for the Hawkeyes rather than the arch rival Gophers, but we'll forgive him that minor transgression.
Tuition money was scarce during the Depression, and to finance his studies as a Forestry major Borlaug periodically dropped out to work. One of his jobs was supervising CCC crews in Idaho, some of whom were suffering starvation. It left an indelible mark. When he returned for his senior year at Minnesota in 1937, he made two acquaintances that would change his life. One was Professor E.C. Stakman, who introduced him to the study of grain pathologies and offered him a graduate assistantship. The other was a coffee shop waitress named Margaret Gibson, with whom he would share 69 years of marriage until her death in 2007.
After completing his MS and PhD in plant pathology Borlaug took a job with DuPont as a microbiologist. He tried enlisting in the military after Pearl Harbor but was rejected because of the importance of his civilian work, which included developing adhesives for Naval applications. In 1944 his old mentor Stakman asked Borlaugh to join a new Rockefeller Foundation wheat research project in Mexico. He agreed, and abandoned the relative comfort and high pay of his DuPont laboratory for the hot fields of Sonora. He would spend the next 16 years on the project with spectacular success: with the rust-resistant varieties of dwarf wheat Borlaug developed, Mexican wheat yields doubled and helped alleviate the hunger in the country. And he introduced Mexico to Little League Baseball, founding and coaching its first team in 1954.
In the 1960s, Borlaug turned his attention to South Asia. India and Pakistan were at war and facing unprecedented famine, with deaths forecast in the hundreds of millions. Indian tests of Borlaug's dwarf wheat seeds were promising, and he traveled there at the request of the Indian government to continue his wheat development program. Despite intense difficulties (including planting wheat under artillery flashes), Borlaug's research resulted in India and Pakistan doubling yields between 1962 and 1970. Both countries were self-sufficient in grain by 1974, and the expected tidal wave of famine deaths had been avoided.
Africa was next on Borlaug's agenda, but by the 1980s he started to face intense opposition from Western environmental groups. Despite his record of success in averting starvation, they opposed his 'Green Revolution' scientific methods -- the use of cross breeding, hybridization, inorganic fertilizer -- as 'unnatural.' Some complained the intensive farming techniques he introduced were displacing traditional subsistence farming, as if starvation by native methods were somehow beautiful and noble. Borlaug would later have blunt words for these critics:
"many [environmental lobbyists] are elitists. They've never experienced the physical sensation of hunger. They do their lobbying from comfortable office suites in Washington or Brussels. If they lived just one month amid the misery of the developing world, as I have for fifty years, they'd be crying out for tractors and fertilizer and irrigation canals and be outraged that fashionable elitists back home were trying to deny them these things."
Pressure from environmental groups prompted The Ford and Rockefeller Foundations to cut off funding for his Africa project, but he found a new benefactor in Japanese shipbuilder Ryoichi Sasakawa. Through the Sasakawa Africa Association, Borlaug continued his work in equatorial Africa, introducing new grain varieties and farming methods that again doubled yields and fed countless hungry people.
The last season of Norman Borlaug's life was spent on the faculty of Texas A&M University where hecontinued working to promote humanitarian projects and food yields around the world. Despite the many accolades he earned he remained modest, almost to a fault. According to one story a security cop refused him entry into his campus office parking lot one Saturday morning, due to an Aggie football game. He cheerfully complied and walked an extra mile from another lot, instead of pointing out to the cop that the building was actually named after him.
Unlike contemporary self-styled members of the environmental-scientific community -- many of whom seem to view the human race as malignancy -- Norman Borlaug was unapologetic in his view that science should be harnessed for the good of mankind. For him, starvation was a pressing human problem to be eradicated, not the inevitable self-inflicted consequence of human folly; and he went about solving it in a systematic, methodical way. Not through armchair theorizing or manifestos, but through hard work and dirt-under-the-fingernails empiricism. He didn't seek utopia, just better crop yields.
I like to believe a good measure of that came from the flat black earth of Howard County. There's plenty of old jokes about the stereotypical boring Iowa farmer, who can only talk about rainfall and crops. If you'll permit me a little state pride, I would only say thank God and Cresco for that. Because Norman Borlaugh was simply the greatest Iowa farmer who ever lived.