Not Just Horsepower but Power without Horses
By James Schneider
For awhile, I’ve been vaguely aware of Norman Borlaug’s importance without knowing very much about him. Recently, I’ve read a Borlaug biography called Our Daily Bread by Noel Vietmeyer. At this point in my life, I don’t have the time to read three-volume biographies. Ideally, I look for a less exhaustive biography by a writer who still knows enough about the subject to fill a much longer work. Our Daily Bread fits this criteria; it was written after Vietmeyer had finished a three-volume series on Borlaug.
Borlaug’s claim to fame is transforming the agriculture of the developing world through plant science. Borlaug was ideally situated to appreciate the power of technology to lift people up out of misery. He grew up in an America where harvest shortfalls could still cause hunger, and he saw his childhood family farm repeatedly transformed by technology: by hybrid corn, by fertilizer, by the tractor.
Like all kindergarten graduates, I knew that tractors provided additional horsepower, but I didn’t realize how much of their value stems from the fact that tractors are not animals. First, work animals eat a lot of food. According to Our Daily Bread:
Like hybrid corn, this motorized marvel boosted food production beyond imagining. For one thing, the 75 million acres required to feed America’s 21 million horses and mules were released to feed 45 million humans. Without breaking a single acre of virgin soil the tractor doubled production of the nation’s basic staple.
Farm animals are high maintenance in another way:
…the greatest uplift was liberation from animal care. With no cows to coddle or horses to handle, they could pursue personal interests — a trip to town, say, or a big-band concert across the county line. Nothing like that had been known in farm country before.
Norm sums up the feeling of freedom: Only those who experienced it can appreciate the blend of excitement and satisfaction in having your life’s prospects made over. Farm families had seen their frontier expand but now, with no animals to care for, they could go out and explore it. Suddenly we could shape our own fate without the old restrictions. We could get an education; maybe even a profession.