From seeds of change, a harvest of gratitude

The author recalls how her father helped to fuel the Green Revolution

"I wonder what your father will think?" My mother said to the images in the mirror. She had just chopped off our long hair, her dark tresses mingling with my long golden curls on the floor.

I was too young to have had a voice in her decision; this had happened in the dark ages when women had finally won the vote, and cutting their hair was an act of defiance that promised more to come. I was only too happy to lose my curls. No more rolling my hair up in cloth rags at bedtime, or pulling out the tangles with a hairbrush before breakfast.

I eagerly awaited my father's return.

He opened the door. "It's raining," he said, absentmindedly thumping my head affectionately as he passed. He tramped through the living room, shaking water onto the rug and trailing it into the hall closet, where he folded up a dripping umbrella and tucked it in among coats and rubber boots.

He said nothing about our hair, probably to my mother's disappointment. If my father, then teaching at the State College (now Kansas State University) in Manhattan, Kan., ever noticed or missed our shorn hair, I never knew. The things he didn't notice, or forgot, were legendary.

But my father's absentmindedness was really single-mindedness. He spent a lifetime concentrating on one thing: wheat. That proved to be a glorious thing for a world threatened by starvation, because his efforts helped to bring about the so-called Green Revolution and a Nobel Peace Prize for Norman Borlaug.

It was my father's distaste for farming that set him on his career path. He was born on a piece of land homesteaded by my great grandmother near Spencer, S.D. She had brought the family there from Missouri in a covered wagon.

His earliest memory was of the family sitting around the breakfast table when the thatch roof of their sod cabin caved in, and a pile of snow landed on the table.

He also remembered working on his aunt's farm in his teens, and determining that farm life was not for him. One day, he happened to read an article on chemistry and decided to go to college to study it. He borrowed $200 from his grandmother to attend South Dakota State College in Brookings.

His only way to get there was by bicycle. He rode by day and slept in stacks of harvested grain at night. Once at college (where he met my mother), he paid his expenses by milking cows.

The younger generation can be forgiven for thinking that the Green Revolution was a gentle battle fought in a foreign country. Actually, it was an explosion of food that fed the world. How it came about is quite a story, not only because it is a tale of serendipity, but also because feeding the world is again becoming a concern.

The Green Revolution started shortly after the end of World War ll. My father, Samuel Cecil Salmon, was in charge of wheat research at the United States Department of Agriculture. He was sent to postwar Japan as scientific adviser to Gen. Douglas MacArthur, Allied Commander of the US occupation of Japan.

My father often said that his assignment was to keep the Japanese from starving, and that his major accomplishment was getting the US Army to remove the wheat they had stored on an ocean wharf, where it would have been destroyed by mold. Actually, his greatest accomplishment was the result of something he had been doing as long as I could remember: watching wheat fields and collecting wheat seeds.

Some of my earliest memories are of riding in the back of a black touring Buick. The car was of such tremendous proportions that my parents could string a hammock from the roof to the back seat. They would sit in the front seat, and my older brother would climb into the hammock to escape from me. This made long tours through the countryside - and in the summer, from Kansas to South Dakota - peaceful.

All of our numerous drives across the plains were purposeful. All were punctuated by numerous stops beside various fields of grain. My father would hop out, climb over, crawl under, or squeeze between wire fences, and return with a handful of grain. Consequently, it was no accident when he noticed that the wheat in Japan didn't "lodge." That is, it didn't fall over from the weight of the grain in the head. He gathered seed from the Japanese wheat and brought it back to the US.

Then he distributed the Japanese wheat to other scientists - his colleagues in America and around the world - to use in cross-breeding. The wheat my father brought back from Japan was called Norin Dwarf Wheat, which provided the basic stock for the Mexican Dwarf Wheat of the Green Revolution - for which Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

A pioneer is recognized

The essay above relates a woman's memories of her father, Samuel Cecil Salmon, who worked for the United States Department of Agriculture and taught at an agricultural college in the middle decades of the last century. His career illustrates how one man's unselfish dedication laid the foundation for another's public success - a success on behalf of all the world's hungry.

When Norman Borlaug won the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 for developing strains of high-yield wheat and rice, Dr. Salmon joined in wishing him well.

"Dear Dr. Salmon," Dr. Borlaug replied in a letter dated Nov. 19, 1970, shortly after the announcement of his Nobel Prize. "I want to thank you for your kind congratulatory telegram. It has very special significance for me because it was you who brought the Norin Dwarf Wheats from Japan to the United States. As you know, this variety provided the basic stock for the Mexican Dwarf Wheats. We are greatly indebted to your wisdom and good judgment...."

Salmon's role was further acknowledged by then-United States Secretary of Agriculture Clifford Harding. He wrote to Salmon: "We were pleased that Norman Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize. I am sure that he recognizes, as we do, that his contribution has been influenced by the work of many others. We know, for example, that your efforts in introducing the dwarf Japanese varieties into the United States after the war was a vital input to the development [by Borlaug and his team] of the Mexican dwarf varieties. Thus, in a very real sense we see the award to Norman Borlaug as a recognition of your dedicated work...."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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