Tuesday, September 29, 2009

Norman Borlaug, RIP (Part II)

Recipient of the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize, Norman Borlaug, died September 12, 2009, at age 95. Borlaug was an agricultural scientist known as a champion of high-yield crop varieties and other science and agricultural innovations. He used these innovations to help fight hunger in underdeveloped Pakistan, India, and Mexico. His own family farm in Iowa also employs innovative organic, sustainable farming methods.

TIME Magazine called Borlaug a "quintessential American success story." This got me thinking about rurality and rural stereotypes that tend to plague not only the law (as we've learned) but also public perception about what it means to be "rural." Why was his success story so "quintessential"? Further exploration seemed to shed some light on the matter. He was a success not only for his agricultural innovations, but because of his rural roots. The suggestion is that he was able to "overcome" his underprivileged beginnings.

Borlaug was born in the small Norwegian-American community of Saude, Iowa, and worked on his family farm west of Protivin, Iowa. He attended the one-teacher, one-room New Oregon rural school in Howard County up through eighth grade. Borlaug was the personification of the "American Dream," a truly self-made man. Close friends even lauded him for laboring on his childhood farm, work that in their opinion, instilled an unparalleled work ethic in his psyche. Reflecting the closeness of his community and the homogeneity, the children in his school would stand and sing “The Iowa Corn Song,” celebrating their identity and the bond they shared as Iowans. Borlaug was also the first person in his family to seek a university education.

The media loves this "rags to riches" story, and it's fascinating to me that even his story can be angled in such a way to play into so many rural stereotypes. Rural places are simple, agricultural communities where few people are college educated or even seek college educations. Well, right off the bat we know that only 2% of rural dwellers are employed in agriculture. Moreover, while many rural people may be uneducated in the academic sense, not all rural knowledge = stupid knowledge like Lisa Heldke might suggest. And why is "success" always measured by urban norms and standards?

In a different vein, I also find it interesting how rural people continue value their rural backgrounds even after flight from their rural place. People want to be connected to their cultural background and past. Borlaug's research directly impacted rural people, both in the United States and abroad. Aided by the use of fertilizer and irrigation, Borlaug’s new wheat varieties enabled poverty-stricken Mexico to achieve self-sufficiency in 1956. Borlaug was also an innovator of rural roads, which helped farmers bring their crops to market. The network of roads built all over his home state not only facilitated agricultural production, but also the transport of children to school and access to medical care. The roads dramatically improved the lives of an entire generation of rural Iowans.

In sum, the death of an accomplished, former rural dweller highlights some interesting issues with regard to place, knowledge, and rural stereotypes. While it appears that rural people and places are studied now more than ever before, urban ideals continue to rule, and stereotypes persist.


UrbanDweller said...

This reminds me of the "talking platypus" theory I learned about in my undergrad psychology class. It is usually used to refer to successful women. The theory basically suggests that "when an individual achieves a level of success not anticipated, his/her achievement tends to be magnified." TIME magazine suggests that Borlaug's success is impressive simply because of his rural roots. It makes one wonder whether his Nobel Peace Prize is attributed to the phenomenon.

Adam W said...

Great post Sarah!

I agree in that most of the obituaries of Mr. Borlaug that I read seem to place at least some emphasis on the "remarkable" fact that his world-changing innovations were developed by a simple, understated farm-boy from IA. After learning more about his work--the practical knowledge he utilized to develop his crop varieties, for example--I'm convinced that it was that very background that allowed him to achieve his breakthroughs.

It's also worth noting that Borlaug conducted most of his work in the field--that is, literally in fields of crops in the developing nations that he worked so tirelessly in trying to help feed.

I respectfully disagree with UrbanDweller. I hardly think that Borlaug's achievements, or the plaudits he receieved for his work, were magnified by his rural roots. Saving hundreds of millions of lives is no small accomplishment, and I think Borlaug deserved the Nobel, the Congressional Gold Medal, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and every other award he was given over the course of his remarkable life.