Going Against the Grain

Norman Borlaug was born in 1914 in Iowa.  As a young man, he worked on the family farm and attended a one-room school until the 8th grade.  He was initially rejected by the University of Minnesota but given a chance to prove himself at their General College.  In order to finance his education, he worked for a year at the Civilian Conservation Corps.  This was his first awareness of the effect that food can have on people who had been starving.

Eventually, Norman would earn a PhD in plant pathology and genetics.  Norman began his career in research where his lab was converted to doing research for the war effort.  Norman developed a glue that would not break down when exposed to warm salt water.  The glue was essential in delivering food to soldiers fighting in the Pacific.

After the war, Norman joined with the Rockefeller Foundation to boost wheat production in Mexico.  Rather than take a traditional approach of boosting grain yields, Norman dealt with a problem that led to a loss of wheat:  stem rust.  Norman developed a shorter, stronger stem which kept wheat from collapsing under its own weight.  Research on wheat at the time had focused on increasing the amount of wheat from one stem.  This caused the wheat stems to collapse with the additional weight.  As a result, a lot of the wheat increases were ruined.  Production of wheat grew three-fold with the increased stem strength.

Norman then took his novel approach to South Asia, especially India and Pakistan.  He also worked in Africa.  For all of his efforts, Borlaug became known as the father of the Green Revolution.  His work has been credited with saving the loss of over a billion people who would have died of starvation.  He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize and Presidential Medal of Freedom.

Norman Borlaug’s career was based upon going against the grain (pun intended).  He pioneered the development of dwarf crops to reduce the loss of crops because of wind, rain, or other environmental forces.  Many innovations are based upon contrarian approaches.  It often takes personal courage to challenge accepted beliefs.

Going against the grain is not a trait valued by many organizations.  Those who go against the grain are often given lower performance ratings.  They are given work that takes them away from their passion.  They are shunned by co-workers.  It was fortunate that Norman Borlaug found an organization that believed in him.

Going against the grain is also not valued in our educational systems.  How many of us have lost points because we didn’t solve a problem the way we were taught or didn’t give an answer that mirrored a teacher’s beliefs?  Teachers don’t value original thinking.  In fact, it’s amazing that Norman Borlaug wasn’t corrupted by his education.

* * *

“It’s better to walk alone, than with a crowd going in the wrong direction.” – Unknown

How To Use

Useful guides for incorporating messages into discussion.