The Iowan who saved a billion lives: Celebrating the legacy, global inspiration and centennial of Norman Borlaug

by John Busbee


Nobel Peace Prize winner Norman Borlaug, “The Father of the Green Revolution” and “Agriculture’s Greatest Spokesperson,” was an Iowan who forged new ways to revolutionize global food production.


Four years after his death in 2009, a dedicated network of scientists and global citizens continues his work to build a more abundant and nutritious food supply to feed an increasingly hungry world. For many, his name is like the rippling effect across a field of golden wheat from a summer breeze and his indelible legacy resonates not only throughout Iowa, but the world.


One hundred years ago, Norman Ernest Borlaug was born on March 25, 1914, to Henry Oliver and Clara (Vaala) Borlaug on his grandparents’ farm just outside of Cresco, Iowa. Claimed by Cresco as its most famous native son, it seems fortuitous that the man whose wheat-growing techniques would save more than a billion lives would hail from a small town whose name in Latin means “to grow.”


Borlaug was raised in a close-knit family in humble surroundings, where the kind of work ethic that became a foundation for Iowa native’s core character traits were forged. He grew up on the typical farm of his time; a 106-acre patch of fertile ground upon which the family raised a variety of crops and livestock to sustain their needs. His grandfather, Nels Olson Borlaug, was a guiding influence on young Norman, instilling in him many important philosophies.


“You’re wiser to fill your head now if you want to fill your belly later on,” Nels Borlaug said, encouraging an early passion and value in a good education in his grandson. Borlaug would later credit Nels as the catalyst to leave the farm and pursue higher education. Grandfather Nels proved to be prophetic as well, once telling young Norman during one of their frequent fishing outings, “Norm-boy, your good deeds will be returned to you in ways you can never imagine.”


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