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AgBookClub Review: ‘The Man Who Fed the World’

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AgBookClub was created by Gracie Weinzierl and Laura Wolf to spark discussions in the agriculture community on consumer-facing books on food, farming, and related topics. They cover a new book each month and host weekly Twitter chats on Wednesdays at 8 p.m. Central using the hashtag #AgBookClub. Here’s what the duo thought of a recent read.

Tis the season for FFA leadership and career development events, from dairy foods to job interview and beyond. Each event connects to the daily work of someone in agriculture. In March, AgBookClub focused on someone whose work had ripple effects far past his corner of the industry: Norman Borlaug. In agriculture circles, he’s a hero. In humanitarian circles, a legend. But do you know his story?

Norman Borlaug, a farm boy from Iowa, was the first in his family to earn an advanced degree. His tireless work combating rust in wheat would make him indispensable in country after famished country. He and his wife, Margaret, moved to Mexico — where they knew neither the culture nor the language — to help solve a food crisis. And that was only the beginning.

“The Man Who Fed the World” by Leon Hesser chronicles the life of the Nobel Laureate, from an Iowa schoolhouse to places across the world. Here’s what Laura and Gracie thought of the read:

Laura’s thoughts:

Going into this book, I knew the story of Norman Borlaug. In fact, when a copywriter at the agency I work for needed a list of Champions of the Rural Spirit, his name was on the tip of my tongue (alongside Temple Grandin). I wanted to better understand the man behind the Peace Prize — so although history books aren’t always my top pick, I was glad Gracie recommended it.

“The Man Who Fed the World” started out slow for me, with recollections of Norman’s time on the farm in Iowa, what inspired him to attend college, and how he became interested in diseases like wheat rusts. The authorized biography reads like one; if you’re expecting palace intrigue, you won’t find it here. However, the tales of Borlaug’s courage — from moving across the world to working long days (and weeks, and months) not only to feed people, but to ensure they would be able to feed themselves — are definitely worth sticking it out.

And while a little hidden, there are some fantastic characters and moments in this book. Take Norman’s wife, Margaret, for example. She was right by Norman’s side when he moved to Mexico, giving birth to their child in a country where even then she spoke the language no better than a child. She managed the household, cared for their children — not to mention holding jobs and volunteer positions herself — all while Norman was away more often than not. Norman’s contributions to the world were huge, but they wouldn’t have been possible without Margaret’s sacrifices.

Though this book was written in the early 2000s, its political relevance is poignant. Borlaug and his colleagues faced not only scientific challenges — breeding rust-resistant, shatter-resistant wheat varieties and teaching local farmers the agronomic practices it takes for them to thrive — they also faced diplomatic issues. Farmers faced everything from limited fertilizer supplies and infrastructure issues to artificially low prices at harvest.

If, like me, you know just enough about Norman Borlaug to want to know more, this is a solid first step. Even if biographies aren’t your thing, and even if the first few chapters don’t hook you, don’t sit this one out.

For me, this book gets 3 of 5 stars. It’s not a breathtaking read, but I’m nevertheless glad I’ve read it.

Gracie’s thoughts:

We all know who Norman Borlaug was: any basic agronomy class and some biology classes will introduce him as a farm kid turned father of the Green Revolution. But what we didn’t learn was the journey that led him there.

Laura gave a pretty good synopsis of Borlaug’s story, but he became the person he was because of the relationships with people he met along the way. Had he never had the opportunity to attend high school (during the Great Depression), he would have never become involved in wrestling and later convinced by a neighbor and former high school coach to attend college, later ending up on their wrestling team. Without the move to Minneapolis to attend the University of Minnesota, he never would have met his wife, Margaret, nor worked under professors who encouraged him to pursue master’s and doctoral degrees in plant pathology following the completion of a bachelor’s degree in forestry and later recommended him for the job in Mexico with the Rockefeller Foundation.

I was impressed to see an entire chapter dedicated to Margaret Borlaug in Norman’s biography. Margaret was the reason Norman was able to take the job in Mexico and all of the hours and long-distance travel it demanded. She became involved in the community of scientists’ families that moved to the Mexican research station from the United States, supporting Norman by caring for their family. This is something true in most families today, especially farming families. There are times when someone must make a sacrifice, whether it be a husband or a wife picking up the slack at home while the other works long hours or travels; kids managing themselves for a few hours after school while Mom and Dad are busy; or grandparents, aunts, uncles, cousins, friends, and neighbors pitching in during the busy season. And it’s nice to see that effort acknowledged so eloquently by Borlaug and the author.

Ultimately, Borlaug changed the game for many farmers around the world and saved many lives with the development of disease-tolerant wheat and the breeding strategies he taught his students. If you like history, I highly recommend this book. While dry at times, I have a new appreciation for what it took to get to where we are today in agriculture. This book gets 4 out of 5 stars from me.

 

AgBookClub is reading The Last Hunger Season, by Roger Thurow in May and June. Join us this Wednesday at 8pm Central with AgriCorps. Visit AgBookClub’s website for the full reading schedule.

Any views or opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not reflect those of AGDAILY. Comments on this article reflect the sole opinions of their writers.