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Norman Borlaug: Celebrating the life of a local agricultural icon

Norman Borlaug crossbred wheat to increase production in order to aid hunger in various countries.

Norman Borlaug crossbred wheat to increase production in order to aid hunger in various countries.

Matthew Gleaves (‘19) | Chips

Matthew Gleaves (‘19) | Chips

Norman Borlaug crossbred wheat to increase production in order to aid hunger in various countries.

Matthew Gleaves, Staff Writer

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Norman Borlaug (1914-2009) is an Iowa native who revolutionized wheat to help alleviate world hunger and starvation. Borlaug has been awarded the Nobel Peace Prize, the Presidential Medal of Freedom, and the Congressional Gold Medal for his work. He was honored in the biannual celebration of Norman Borlaug Day Luther’s Education department on Friday, May 11.

Despite receiving some of the world’s most prestigious awards, Borlaug is relatively unknown. In response to this lack of recognition, those passionate about his work created the nonprofit organization Norman Borlaug Heritage Foundation.

The objectives of this organization are to preserve the two farms on which he grew up and to provide information about Borlaug’s agricultural contributions. NBHF Board Member Tom Spindler explained in detail how Borlaug crossbred wheat to improve production.

“[Borlaug] worked in the wheat fields of Mexico in the 40s and 50s and developed a wheat strand that transformed agriculture as we know it through his crossbreeding techniques,” Spindler said. “He bred into these plants resistance to the disease rust, quadrupled how much they grew, and helped feed the people of Mexico.”

After Borlaug developed this new technology in Mexico, he took his work to India and Pakistan to help fight hunger and starvation. It took 15 years to achieve a desirable crop in Mexico, but because the new technology had been modified after the original creation, it only took three or four years to achieve the desirable goal in India and Pakistan. Borlaug’s work is attributed to transforming these countries’ grain production methods and alleviating hunger and starvation.

To make information about Borlaug’s work more accessible, NBHF holds Norman Borlaug Days biannually to educate kids around Iowa, once in the spring and once in the fall. Typically, the spring Norman Borlaug Day is held on one of Borlaug’s family farms that the foundation has preserved, but due to the weather, this year’s Norman Borlaug Day was held in the Luther College Regents Center. Luther education students in science and social studies methods prepared lessons for the fifth graders who attended Norman Borlaug Day.

10 groups of fifth graders rotated through 10 different lessons taught by pairs of Luther students. Half of the lessons focused on science and half of them focused on social studies. Topics of the lessons varied from the anatomy of wheat, music of the 1920s and 30s, to baseball and old farm tools.

The common theme tying together all of the lessons was putting the students into the perspective of Borlaug either through doing what Borlaug did or experiencing what life was like when he was alive. Derek Barnhouse (‘18) taught a science lesson about the wheat plant itself.

“[Our lesson] revolved around the physiology of the wheat plant,” Barnhouse said. “Essentially what we wanted to get across is what [part of] the wheat plant did Norman Borlaug [manipulate] to make it so successful.”

As a way to engage the fifth graders, Barnhouse included a relay in which the students ran and looked at a piece of wheat for 10 seconds, drew it, then tagged out and had a classmate do the same. The class then labeled the pieces of the wheat and explored the importance of each part of the plant.

Keeping students interested in the material was a consideration for those teaching. With this in mind, Lizzy Myra (‘18) created a social studies lesson that engaged students by exploring what farming would have been like when Borlaug was their age.

“We have some old farm tools from one of our professors in the [education] department,” Myra said. “The kids [explored] using old hand drills and planters. Just some cool, old farm tools.”

Anneliese Braaten (‘18) taught at the spring Norman Borlaug Day as well and thinks the day lives up to its reputation.

“Part of this day was to make sure the kids understand that there’s this Nobel Peace Prize winner that grew up like 20 minutes away from [them],” Braaten said. “If he can do that, look at the things you can do.”

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