Victor, Vietmeyer bring Borlaug’s story to NSU

Farm Forum

Even though many people don’t know who Norman Borlaug was, most everyone has profited from his life’s work.

“He is an agricultural humanitarian and an American icon,” said Noel Vietmeyer, Borlaug’s biographer and good friend. “It’s so sad that nobody knows his name.”

Borlaug bred varieties of wheat that were hardier and more efficient, which eventually stamped out famine and hunger throughout the world, a movement commonly known as the Green Revolution. For this, he won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize.

Vietmeyer was in Aberdeen at Northern State University at the behest of the Honors Program and Ben Victor, NSU’s former artist-in-residence and Borlaug sculptor. He spoke to a half-full lower section of the Krikac Auditorium on Sept. 25.

It was Vietmeyer’s work that brought Victor closer to Borlaug as he worked on his sculpture, which was dedicated at the U.S. Capitol’s Statuary Hall on March 25, two days before what would have been Borlaug’s 100th birthday. The statue was Victor’s second in the Statuary Hall, making him the only living person to have two works there.

“Those books really took you into that time period and make you feel that you were there and you could see what it was like for this little boy who live a long time ago when we were on the cusp of these great breakthroughs,” Victor said. “Norman Borlaug told Noel these stories first hand and Noel had the foresight to see who Dr. Borlaug was and why these stories needed to be recorded accurately and descriptively so that they could be handed down.”

Victor was back at NSU for the first time since leaving this summer for Boise State University, a trip he plans to make regularly.

“It’s very good to be home here in Aberdeen and get to introduce Noel,” Victor said.

Borlaug, an Iowa native, earned his degrees from the University of Minnesota in forestry. He worked with the Rockefeller Foundation and the Mexican government to develop wheat to grow there.

Vietmeyer read excerpts from his three-part Borlaug biography about two influential South Dakotans.

One, Edgar McFadden, a farm boy from Webster who bred black stem rust resistant wheat. Using McFadden’s crops, Borlaug was able to adapt the seeds for the Mexican climate he was studying.

During his visit, Vietmeyer was able to visit the McFadden farm on Sept. 25, the highlight of his trip

“It’s hallowed ground for the world,” Vietmeyer said. “But it doesn’t look like much. … The land doesn’t look very good, but as I said, for the world, that’s hallowed ground.”

The other was Cecil Salmon, who grew up in Emery. He developed shorter varieties of wheat, the waist-high variety we use today, which creates a more efficient plant, Vietmeyer said. Borlaug used the shorter plants in his work in Mexico as well.

Borlaug and Vietmeyer worked together on projects for the National Academy of Sciences.

Because of Borlaug’s work, Vietmeyer championed agriculture as the field that could make the most difference in the world.

“If any of you are going on, I suggest you don’t go to law school, or business school; if you want to change the world don’t go to medical school,” Vietmeyer said. “Go to ag school.”

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