Key figure in ‘green revolution’ got his start on Iowa farm

2017-03-19T14:00:00Z Key figure in ‘green revolution’ got his start on Iowa farmBy Gene Lucht, Illinois Farmer Today Illinois Farmer Today
March 19, 2017 2:00 pm  • 

Editor’s note: This is part of a series about farms throughout the Midwest known for famous residents, innovations, renowned products and historic events.

CRESCO, Iowa — Sometimes the best thing produced by a farm isn’t the crop, but the children. Such is the case with the northeast Iowa farm where Norman Borlaug grew up.

“Even in in later years, Norm would talk about his boyhood farm,” says Kenneth Quinn, president of the World Food Prize. “He would talk about the Turkey River, and the hard work that taught him those life lessons.”

Borlaug, who lived from 1914 to 2009, eventually became famous as a crop researcher who was the face of the “green revolution” and helped devise high-yielding crops to feed a hungry world.

His research in Mexico and India led to the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize. In the late 1980s, he founded the World Food Prize, which is now based in Des Moines. Along the way, he was credited with feeding as many as a billion people.

But it all started on this little farm 14 miles south of Cresco, Iowa, in rural Howard County.

“It was a wet farm,” says Tom Spindler, a retired school teacher who helps operate the historic farm for the Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation in Cresco.

The land in this part of northeast Iowa is level. A wetland stops just feet away from the big white barn that has the Borlaug named emblazoned across the end. It’s easy to picture Borlaug’s father scratching his head as he tries to figure out how to get his crops planted in the wet fields.

The neighborhood here was very much a Norwegian one when Norman Borlaug was born more than 100 years ago.

He was born in a small house which is part of the historic farm today. Eventually it became crowded with Borlaug and his two sisters, his parents and grandparents. He lived down the road with an aunt and uncle for a time.

His parents eventually bought a home from Sears, which was common in that time. The farmer would buy a kit, in this case for under $1,000, it would be shipped by train and erected by the family or other local workers.

The Borlaug’s moved into their new home in October of 1922, when Norm was 8 years old.

“He remembered the first day of living in the new home,” Spindler says. “He talked about remembering the smell of fresh pine and paint and of the family being back together again.”

A few years later, when Borlaug finished eighth grade in the little country school that has since been moved to the farm location, his teacher urged his parents to send him on to high school. That teacher, a cousin, convinced the parents. He went on to earn a degree from the University of Minnesota and later earned advanced degrees and did research around the world.

Today the World Food Prize that Borlaug started goes annually to someone who has helped advance the cause of feeding the world, either through science or policy. Its annual meeting in Des Moines brings together dignitaries from around the globe.

In Cresco, officials have been working in recent years to restore the old buildings here and to make sure they are used to educate the public and to encourage young students. The foundation brings grade school students to the farm twice a year and would like to establish a larger educational program.

The farm, which is presently a little more than 100 acres, is partially in the Conservation Reserve Program (CRP). But the vision is for test plots and demonstrations.

And Quinn says visiting the Borlaug farm always brings things into perspective.

“It’s sort of like ground zero,” he says. “This is where it all started. This is where his odyssey began.”

Tourists can set up guided tours by contacting the NBHF (online at or the Cresco Chamber of Commerce.

Copyright 2017 Illinois Farmer Today. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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