Transcript/Biography

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"In the elections of 1940, Henry Wallace was elected Vice President."
     Question: "A good Iowa boy."
     "Good Iowa boy and the founder of Pioneer Hybrid Seed Company. And so, after – He had no job – he had to resign [from the Secretary of Agriculture post he held] before he campaigned for the Vice Presidency. He was elected in November. And so, Roosevelt sent him to the inauguration of the incoming president of Mexico which takes place always December 1st. And this was December 1st, 1940. So, Henry Wallace and his wife in his Plymouth drove to Mexico. No security. The kind of person he was, he'd stop and talk to farmers… Instead of the agricultural production going up, per capita, it was going down. Henry Wallace, of course, was horrified. These two Mexican officials met with Wallace and the American ambassador a few days later at the American embassy. Joseph Daniels was the ambassador. And the government wanted help to train a new generation of Mexican scientists across all of the disciplines that bear on yield and productivity… Henry Wallace, when he got back to Washington, he was going to establish this program under U. S. government sponsorship. He suddenly realized that he'd never get a bill through Congress. So, he called the Rockefeller Foundation. He said, 'You've been working since 1914 in public health in quite a few countries. Trying to help them to improve health conditions, sanitation, water, sewage disposal, all of those things.' He said, 'You've learned how to work with governments.' He said, 'You'd better take a look at this because our next door neighbor needs help.' It was indirectly through his influence and his intervention with the president of the Rockefeller Foundation, Raymond Fosdick… in late '41 to establish a small program to see what could be done to help Mexico. And that program was initiated and Dr. Harrar was appointed the country director. HARRAR, George. 'Dutch,' everybody called him. And he was the director and that program started on paper in 1943. And I joined it in 1944, late '44, October, and [I've] been affiliated with international agriculture ever since."
     Question: "This whole program might not have happened if Wallace had not gone down there."
     "No. And you see it preceded what became the U.S.A.I.D. [Agency for International Development] by, let's see, five years. It preceded the Marshall Plan by four years."
     The Early Years. "I traveled widely in Mexico to see where the potential for wheat production was. The old Mexico with the soils, tremendous soil infertility problem even under, where there was irrigation. Without fertilizer you weren't going any place. Sure, you could use barnyard manure, but there wasn't enough to change production except on a small percentage of the area. So, I looked at Northwest Mexico as the place that had the potential. It had irrigation, and I saw the government's long-time plans for more irrigation further south in the next state of Sinaloa… Harrar and Stakman and the other counselors I think were wise. The people who were to be trained were the ones just coming from graduating, their first degree. You tried to build them into a team with the spirit that went with it."
     Question: "What were those teams like?"
     "People at that time in those countries, if you got a good education you didn't go out there and get all dirty and muddy in your clothes. You had other people, workers do that, make the plants. Well, we didn't operate that way, for obvious reasons, because of our background. So, you're dealing with change. And you've got to build the will to win into that team of scientists. And it has to be across disciplines. It's not just genetics and plant breeding. No matter how good a variety I grow back, that plant has to have food. And you have to take care of its enemies, the weeds, the diseases and the insects."
     First High-Yield Wheat Varieties. "We always had a philosophy to use the best thing that was available, the best seed, at a given point in time. And it so happened that when the collection of plant breeding materials were obtained, Harrar and Stakman together had brought a lot of those in. They had not yet been planted. And I was involved in planting the first of them."
     Question: "They brought them in from where?"
     "From many places in the world, including spring wheats. Mexico doesn't grow winter wheat. And among the materials, the Australian and the Kenyan materials did fairly well. The Texas materials from here [Texas A&M; University] Dr. McFadden… His hope variety crossed with Mediterranean winter wheat for leaf rust resistance. And he had crossed that with a Brazilian variety. And he sent me some of these that were fairly uniform. And I tested those. And one of those was good enough for growing in Central Mexico. I tried to test it in Sonora. It had – [It was a] big tall thing, big heads like that. But it had one weakness. When it was ripe and the wind blew, the whole head would break and fall on the ground. Not in the kernel. Not shattering. The whole neck would break off. So, it was useless for combine harvesting. But in Central Mexico at that time, the old time, it was still mostly cut with a hand sickle. So they could cut it a little green. They could handle it. So, this was the first things that I distributed in Central Mexico, a Kenyan variety. Not very high yielding, but with good rust resistance for Northwest Mexico."
     First Dwarf Varieties. "For Sonora, combines were just starting to come in. We had to have resistance to shattering, shelling out, or this neck-breakage. Also, the level of fertility – I could see that the best farmers there, the very best could produce under irrigation 30 bushels [of wheat per acre]. But I knew that we had to have nitrogen. And about the second year of testing, I started to put fertilizer tests with nitrogen and phosphorous. There were no phosphate responses, just nitrogen. I saw with the tall, best new varieties we had out, I could double the yield. Instead of 30, I could get 60 or 62 or '3 bushels. But the farmers, of course, when they saw how this went, they put on more fertilizer. They soon had them all flat on the ground because more fertilizer, more yield until they got knocked over by the wind in the last irrigation."
     Question: "Is that because there was too much fertilizer on it?"
     "For the kind of the architecture of the plants. And then, of course, we got the dwarfing genes. They were down like this [shorter and stronger than tall varieties]."
     Shuttle Breeding Program. "At the time I started that program, the dogma of the time everywhere in the world – When you made the cross, the seed from the crossed plants you planted and that's intermediate in characteristics to the two parents. But the seed from those first F1 plants, first generation crossed plants, you harvest. And when you plant that, each plant is different in many characteristics. OK. The dogma of the time was that you had to plant your segregating materials at the same time the farmer did and select for plants that fit the cycle of cropping that he had. So that the temperatures didn't go up too early and croak the thing before it was mature or that it didn't flower too soon and be frosted. In other words, that it had to fit the farming system that you were trying to serve. That meant that you could only plant and select once a year. I took 10 years to breed a rust resistant variety. And I said, 'There'll be another rust epidemic before 10 years go by. There had been [an epidemic] three years in a row just two years before I arrived. So, I've got to do something different.'
     "And, I threw the textbook away, and I looked for a place where I could establish shuttle breeding. I would plant in this area in Sonora which I thought would become one of the main producing areas even though it was 1,000 miles, or 800 miles from the main markets. The railroads were there. So, I would plant when the farmers did, in early November, these segregating populations and select the best plants with the rust resistance. Try to create artificial epidemics of rust. The plants with the best seed, I would find a summer location where the temperatures were right and where there was rainfall that was adequate. I couldn't plant the second generation on the coast because the temperatures there are 35, 40, 45 [degrees Celsius] cotton country during the summer. So, I would move 10 degrees latitude, that's 700 miles further south and high in the mountains in Toluca about 40 miles from Mexico City. At about 8,650 feet elevation, I would plant the seed that I harvested from the best plants, harvested in Sonora, in late April and the first days of May. I would plant them before the middle of May in Toluca or Chapingo where the national college was. Chapingo is a 1,000 feet lower in the valley of Mexico than Toluca. Mostly, we started in Chapingo, but in a couple of years we found we could, at Toluca another 1,000 feet higher, we could get a test both for stem rust and for low temperature, stripe rust. So, most of it went from Sonora to Toluca back to Sonora. The best plants in summer nurseries planted in May were harvested in October and the seed of the best went back to Sonora. And by that shuttle breeding, we could produce a variety with good rust resistance in four-and-a-half years. We began to multiply at the same time we continued to test. We started to multiply three different ones that looked promising in small plots to build up the seed. And after three years of testing, we knew which was the best. And we'd discard the other two and multiply the one. So, this shuttle breeding, at the time we were doing this, no one knew how important photoperiodism and temperature was in adaptation of these new varieties… This is one of the keys of why the Mexican wheats could be moved around the world into many different environments."
     Introducing New Varieties. "If you show our farmers how they can increase yields eight or 10 percent, they'll jump at it. But a farmer that's got these miserably low yields, where they're living close to starvation and famine, they can't take a chance on 10 percent. It's got to be 50 at least, and 100 and 200 and 300 percent which very often you can achieve if you put it all together. So, you've got to consider all of these things, too…
     "And in our demonstrations in Sonora, at the first farmer's field day – in 1948 before we released the first variety that was actually crossed and bred, Yaqui '48 – I went to town and I went to the local newspaper. My Spanish was still miserable. I got put into the local paper that we were having a field day on Sunday afternoon with a barbeque and beer – for bait. But we only got about 25 people and I think 22 of them were bureaucrats, engineero agronomos, working in different government offices including the government agricultural bank and various government agencies. And maybe only three farmers, and they were probably the three poorest farmers in the valley. They came because of the free barbeque and beer. But the second year, these people saw this. And later that week one or two good farmers would come out and look…
     "At the third field day, when I already had my second year of fertilizer test on the station, there in front was Rodolfo Calles, the ex-governor and the civic leader of Ciudad Obregón and son of the president, and beside him the two best farmers. By then, we had the first good varieties out, and these three farmers were growing them. They had accepted them. But this was the first time they came out in public and were showing an interest in agricultural science. So, I had [indecipherable] explain the breeding program. Then I told them about last year we had the same test and we nearly doubled the yield with only 60 kilos of nitrogen… But suddenly, everything changed. And then Don Rodolfo Calles came out a couple of years later. And they became the biggest supporters and also the best seed producers."
     Dealing with Politicians. "It was in, it would have been the fourth year, I told Harrar – he was the director, [and] I learned a lot about handling politicians from him. I told him when we were ready to distribute the first variety of wheat… I said, 'You know, I see Mexico is importing more than half of the wheat it's consuming. And I have seen that the milling companies are the importers of that grain. They get a permit to import. Before they do that they come at harvest time to central Mexico, the little old poor farmers, and they offer them a miserable price. Way down, 30, 40 percent less [than world prices]. Because they say it's bad, it's all mixed, it's low protein. All the good sales pitch to buy cheap. The farmer, if he has had a loan to plant, he has to sell.' And I saw this abuse going on. And I told Harrar, 'We better fix this before we get our new varieties out there, or we can become victims of this, too.'
     "So, we talked about it and he said, 'What do we do?'
     "The sub-secretary of agriculture was a technical person. He had worked in sugarcane production. A very fine gentleman, kindly guy, smoked a pipe. And he spoke rather good English, one of the few top officials that spoke English. So, we went to see him. And we said, 'We're ready to distribute this, but we think there has to be a change in policy on pricing.' We told him about the poor price the little farmer was receiving.
     "He said, 'Well, what can I do about this?'
     "We said, 'Don't issue the import permits until they buy all of that locally-produced grain from central Mexico.'
     "This was proposed to the sub-secretary, and he listened. He smoked his pipe for a minute or two. He said, 'I'll do it.' And he did it. This was my first lesson in dealing with top officials on pricing."
     The Results. "Mexico became self-sufficient in wheat production in 1956, 12 years. By that time two things had happened. First, the yields had gone up, doubled essentially. But the area – it became a money-making proposition. So, there was much more wheat grown. Flax, which was grown because wheat would get killed off, the flax crop essentially disappeared. And cotton had too many insect problems. So the wheat in that area of Mexico and the next state south became one of the important crops. By 1959, enough of the trained people from our urgent team [who] had gone out to be trained had come back and I turned the program over to them."

Dr. Norman Borlaug – Mexican Program

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Other Excerpts from Paul Underwood’s Interview:

The Population Bomb
An Autobiography
India & Pakistan
Working in Africa
Organic Farming