Saturday, September 29, 2012

If You Plant It

I listened to a great lecture this week by one of my colleagues: “The Four Great Chinese Inventions”.  These were gunpowder, the egg roll, paper, and rice wine.  Or something like thatI wasn't really listening all that closely to Dr. Holland--I was just waiting until it was my turn to talk.  I learned this behavior in faculty meetings.

Actually, like my students, I smiled a lot and nodded my head periodically while I let my mind wander out of the classroom door, down the street and out in the fields and pastures that surround Enema U.  We are an ag school, so it isn’t that far to travel—or at least not currently.  If the Board of Regents get its way, we will pave over the last of the fields, build another parking lot, erect a second indoor equestrian center, or throw up a building to house the world’s largest ball of string that some rich—and bat shit crazyalumnus gave us. 

While I don’t know for sure, I imagine the Dean of Agriculture has nightmares that the Regents will suddenly want him to convert the ag program to ‘virtual farming’.  We could become the University of Farmville. Don’t laugh--I bet you that even as you read this, one of my colleagues is writing a grant proposal to the Department of Agriculture for a manual on how to safely drive the virtual tractor on the virtual farm.  And if he can work the words ‘social justice’ into the title of that grant, the check is as good as written.

No, I wasn't really listening as Dr. Holland droned on about the Tang Dynasty.  (Who knew?  I thought NASA invented that.)  I was wondering why the seed drill wasn't included in that list of great inventions.  For those of you who don’t work at an ag school, a seed drill is a device that plants seeds at a uniform depth in the ground and at a uniform distance between the seeds.  Without a seed drill, the farmer is forced to wander around the field, throwing seeds into the air, plowing the fields a second time, all the while hoping that some of the seeds end up where they more or less should be.  Most of the seeds don’t cooperate—so the farmer has to work twice as hard to produce much less of a yield.

Without a seed drill, the population of China never would have grown so rapidly.  Without an abundance of food, China never would have had large numbers of people turning their attentions away from agriculture to perfecting art or technology.  Without the seed drill, China never would have developed those four great inventions: the paper umbrella, printing, kung fu movies, and the compass.

China invented the seed drill 2200 years ago, and agriculture immediately made a great leap forward.  In Europe, a good working seed drill wasn't perfected until 1701, by Jethro Tull, more than 1900 years later.  While this was an important invention that started the European agricultural revolution, today no one would remember him if he hadn't started a progressive blues band.

In America, we seem to take agriculture for granted.  (Or, possibly, we just don’t care.)  As long as the supermarket shelves are full, where it came from is not important.  While millions in the world go hungry, the average American is so confident of his food supply that he only keeps a three-day supply of food in his house—at most.

Did you recognize the caricature at the top of this post?  Need a hint?  Well, in an era where the Nobel Peace prize is occasionally awarded for dubious political achievements, this man won his (along with his Presidential Medal for Freedom and the Congressional Gold Medal) for saving a billion people from starvationso far. 

I cannot imagine why every university throughout the world does not have a statue of this man.  Certainly every ag school should have one.  This shy, modest man was Norman Borlaug, who worked extensively in Asia, Africa, and Latin America to develop high-yield and drought-resistant strains of wheat.  Without a doubt, he doubled the yields of farms throughout Asia and Latin America.  Yet, when he died three years ago in Texas, most Americans had never heard of him.

Even a great ag school like Enema U (a school wise enough to pay me to drift off during Dr. Holland’s lecture) doesn't have a course on the history of agriculture!

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