Firsts on the Food Scene

Known for feeding the world, Iowa also has cultivated top agricultural leaders whose legacies you can still experience today.

Above: Iowa’s pioneering humanitarian and agriculture leaders (shown from left) Jessie Field Shambaugh, Herbert Hoover, George Washington Carver, Henry A. Wallace and Norman Borlaug, are celebrated at the Iowa Gallery in Des Moines’ World Food Prize Hall of Laureates. Gary Kelley of Cedar Falls painted the mural. Photo courtesy of the World Food Prize.

Writer: Beth Eslinger

Jessie Field Shambaugh (1881-1971)
Education Advocate

More than 100,000 Iowa youths can thank this rural teacher for establishing after-school clubs focused on STEM, leadership, healthy living, and communication and the arts. Shambaugh is considered the mother of 4-H, and she created the iconic clover design. (Fun fact: The shape is federally protected, similar to the presidential seal.)

As a teacher, the Shenandoah native saw a need for supplemental programs for rural children, creating the Boys Corn Club and the Girls Home Club. Judging activities such as soil testing and corn evaluation became part of the programming and continue to this day. Today, 4-H engages kids and their families in both urban and rural locales with new programming. Recently, a Page County post office was renamed after Shambaugh.

Herbert Hoover (1874-1964)
President and Humanitarian Leader

Iowa’s first and only U.S. president also helped coin “Meatless Mondays” and “Wheatless Wednesdays.” The West Branch native fed hundreds of millions of Central and Eastern Europeans during and after World War I as head of the U.S. Food Administration and later the European Relief and Rehabilitation Administration.

Under his leadership, 34 million tons of U.S. food, clothing and other supplies were shipped to Europe. His motto: “Food will win the war.” As the country’s food czar, he had Americans growing victory gardens. (The trend is spiking again this year due to COVID- 19.) Visitors to his West Branch presidential library can see one of the largest collections of World War I flour sacks and review the Food Will Win the War display.

George Washington Carver (1864-1943)
Black Groundbreaker

The first Black American to attend Simpson College and the first to graduate from Iowa State College (with both bachelor’s and master’s degrees), Carver was an early advocate of crop rotation and ag education. Born into slavery in southwest Missouri, he started experimenting with plants in his youth. While leading the Iowa State Experimental Station, Carver worked on crop rotation, learning the benefits of soy to fix nitrogen in soil.

Carver eventually moved to the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama, where he worked in peanuts, creating 325 products with the legume. In 1941, Time magazine called Carver the “Black Leonardo.” As part of the George Washington Carver scholarship program at Iowa State, 100 high-achieving multicultural students receive free tuition. Visitors to Carver Hall on campus can see Christian Petersen’s bronze sculpture of the figure.

Henry A. Wallace (1888-1965)
Progressive Pioneer

Politician, editor, scientist, farmer: Wallace wore many hats during his career. But perhaps the most impressive is his development of hybridized seed corn, which increased production by 50% by the time of his death in 1965.

The founder of Hi-Bred Corn Co. (Pioneer was added to the name a decade later, in 1935) also reinvented ag policy during the New Deal as U.S. agriculture secretary. Food stamps and school lunch programs, regulations on crop prices, controlled production to meet demand and reduce surplus, and subsidies for planting cover crops can all be credited to Wallace.

The Iowa State College graduate also served as editor at his family’s paper, Wallaces Farmer. Today, visitors can tour the Wallace farmstead in Orient, enjoy farm-to-table meals, and participate in cooking and gardening classes; his Des Moines home in Sherman Hill is also available for historic teas.

Norman Borlaug (1914-2009)
Father of the Green Revolution

The only Iowan to win a Noble Peace Prize, Borlaug revolutionized wheat production while researching the essential grain in Mexico. Through experimentation, he crossed several varieties to boost yields and resist disease. Similar work with Asian rice fields helped provide this staple crop to the masses.

Known as the “father of the Green Revolution,” the Cresco native helped feed half the world during his work. Borlaug founded the World Food Prize in 1986, which has been awarded to agricultural leaders from five continents. Today, the Food Prize also engages with youths interested in food careers through youth summits and internships. Its downtown Des Moines headquarters, the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, is available for tours.

Early Ag Secretaries from Iowa

Tom Vilsack and Henry A. Wallace might be the most commonly known U.S. secretaries of agriculture from Iowa, but three earlier Iowans also made their mark on the post.

James Wilson (1835-1920)

Born in Scotland, Wilson attended Iowa College (known as Grinnell today) and held the post from 1897 to 1913 under three presidents (William McKinley, Theodore Roosevelt and William Howard Taft). He was the longest working of any cabinet member in U.S. history, working just a day short of 16 years. While teaching at Iowa State College he mentored George Washington Carver and was a longtime friend of Henry C. Wallace.

Edwin Thomas Meredith (1876-1928)

Famously known as the founder of Successful Farming and Better Homes & Gardens, Meredith also served as the nation’s top agricultural leader from 1920 to 1921 under the Woodrow Wilson administration.

Henry C. Wallace (1866-1924)

Father of Henry A., the elder Wallace studied agriculture at Iowa State College and taught dairy science there. He worked for his family paper, Wallaces Farmer, before becoming agriculture secretary in 1921, a position he held until his death in 1924. He served under Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge.

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