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Borlaug's Work in Mexico

The University of Minnesota College of Ag, Food and Environemental Sciences

In 1944 the young plant pathologist was working for Du Pont chemical company, where he was in charge of research on industrial and agricultural bactericides, fungicides, and preservatives. As soon as the government ruled Borlaug was no longer essential to the war effort, he jumped at the chance to join the Mexican development project. Rejecting Du Pont's offer to double his salary, temporarily leaving behind his 14-month-old daughter and his pregnant wife, he flew to Mexico City to begin the job of making Mexico self-sufficient in wheat. He knew one word of Spanish.

"Many times in the first five years I wondered, 'Why did I ever resign from Du Pont?'" Borlaug recalls.

During the first year he trudged into an abandoned research station in northern Mexico. A new wheat variety promoted by the Mexican scientist at the station had resulted in disastrous rust epidemics in 1939, '40, and '41. Area farmers came to regard scientists as social parasites. Borlaug spent the night in a broken-down hut while rats scampered over his bedroll. In the morning he set out to visit the local farmers, introducing himself in broken Spanish and asking to borrow a small tractor to plant an experimental crop at the station. The farmers treated him like a crazy man.

Borlaug had to wonder if the project was worth it. His family was 1,000 miles away and his infant son, whom he had never seen, was dying of spina bifida.

The next morning he hauled an old hand plow from the station's storage shed, got in the harness, and began to cut wavering furrows through the field. The sight attracted some curious Mexican farmers. Out of pity or amusement, they offered him a small tractor. It was one of his more novel ways to procure equipment. Shortly thereafter he had a tractor fabricated from parts of three old junkers.

Life seemed more normal once Borlaug's wife, Margaret, and his daughter, Jeanie, moved to Mexico City. There the Borlaugs had another child, Billy.

Borlaug credits Margaret for keeping the family together under trying circumstances. Amenities were scant, and Borlaug was off in experiment fields more often than he was home. Borlaug's approach to fatherhood was typical of the big effort he gave to everything. Concerned that his son wouldn't have a chance to play baseball, Borlaug helped found the Mexican Little League in 1954. He'd finish in the experiment fields Friday evening, make a six-hour drive to Mexico City, and coach his team on Saturday mornings. His 1957 team went undefeated.

"Those were some mighty tough boys," Borlaug says with pride nearly 30 years later.

Borlaug is a man who knows "tough". Breeding his wheat plants involved walking stooped over through the fields, checking the stems for brown pustules of rust. It was all hand labor. Crossing wheat strains to find rust-resistant varieties required removing the male stamen from each bisexual

Borlaug shown here in Mexico in 2000. wheat flower. Otherwise the wheat would pollinate itself. It took great concentration to do the delicate work with a tweezers, especially when perched on a stool under the hot Mexican sun.

In nine years of work, Borlaug and his assistants make 6,000 individual crossings of wheat. By 1956 his rust-resistant varieties had helped Mexico double its wheat production and, for the first time, become self-sufficient in grain. And the green revolution had yet to really begin.

The first big step toward the green revolution occurred when Borlaug hiked into that abandoned research station in northern Mexico. It involved an unorthodox procedure and nearly led to Borlaug's resignation form the project.

The main problems with wheat rust and nutrient-depleted soil were to the south, in the central highlands around Mexico City. Borlaug's boss, George Harrar, wanted research concentrated in that region. But Borlaug saw a chance to speed the progress of breeding rust-resistant wheat by taking advantage of Mexico's two growing seasons. In the summer he would breed wheat in the central highlands, then immediately take the seed north to the Yaqui Valley research station. Because of different altitudes and temperatures, crops could be planted back-to-back in the two areas.

This, of course, meant doubling the work. It also contradicted a principle of agronomy that has since been disproved. At the time it was believed that seeds needed a rest between harvest and planting to store energy for germination. Yet Borlaug was talking about planting the seeds immediately after harvest.

When Harrar vetoed the scheme, Borlaug angrily resigned. Fortunately, the mentor of both men, E.C. Stakman, was visiting the project. He not only talked Borlaug into withdrawing his resignation, he convinced Harrar to allow a double season of wheat breeding in areas 700 miles apart.

What nobody guessed was that shuttling the plants back and forth would unsnarl the problem of photoperiodism. Wheat was sensitive to periods of sunlight. If light dropped below a certain level, wheat plants would release an enzyme that shut down growth. This light sensitivity limited the ability of strains of wheat to adapt to different environments around the world. Each geographic area, it was believed, would require a separate breeding program.

"As it worked out," Borlaug says, "in the north we were planting when the days were getting shorter, at low elevation and high temperature. Then we'd take the seed from the best plants south and plant it at high elevation, when days were getting longer and there was lots of rain. Soon we had varieties that fit the whole range of conditions. That wasn't supposed to happen by the books."

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