The World Food Prize Foundation

The Borlaug Blog

Dreams and a Business Born in Iowa

By Rachael Cox
Co-founder and CEO of EarthEmpower

Sixteen years ago, as a young woman in Iowa with a dream to end world hunger, I timidly asked Norman Borlaug how I could follow in his footsteps. He said to pick a discipline and study, study, study! At the time, I had hoped for a more exciting answer from one of my heroes, but a few years later, after I had followed his exact advice and dug into studying crops and soils at Iowa State University, I realized he was exactly right. My interdisciplinary undergrad degree, diverse study abroad opportunities, extensive experience in research labs, management of my own field research and leadership in starting and running student-led organizations led me straight his footsteps to work at CIMMYT (the International Center for Maize and Wheat Improvement) in Mexico, running a network of over fifty conservation agriculture research sites across the country. Now that I had my dream job secured, I understood why his advice had been so valuable.

Though he had recently passed away when I came to CIMMYT, I came across more advice from Dr. Borlaug there, advice that would eventually guide my career vision… “Take it to the farmer.” He left these words of advice with some CIMMYT scientists and they took those words to find a way to ensure the best technologies and practices would find a way to farmers and their fields. This advice seems obvious on the surface, but if you have ever worked in agriculture sciences you might know that it is one thing to do the research and it is a whole other monster to find a way to ensure farmers benefit from that research.

As a young professional, every day I walked by Norman Borlaug’s former office. I frequently walked through the research field plots that used to be his. Some of his final words of advice for CIMMYT scientists reverberated through the walls of CIMMYT’s offices and my head every day – “Take it to the farmer.” I spent my time thinking about how we, the scientists, the agronomists, the dedicated professionals looking for solutions to poverty, malnutrition, food insecurity and climate change, make sure farmers have the very best options and access to solutions to their problems. How do we make sure the results of our research translate to impact with farmers?

As I spent more and more time with farmers around Mexico and Latin America, I started to ruminate on Dr. Borlaug’s advice. I began to add my own theories as an evolving professional and my motto evolved to, “Start with the farmer. Listen to the farmer. And take it together with the farmer.” My work took me next to lead a USAID-funded project in Guatemala and, expanding my horizons, on to another USAID funded project, this time with the International Potato Center (CIP) in Rwanda. With each new place, with every new farmer I met, I learned more about how we as agricultural professionals could learn from the farmers. I learned that the farmers themselves knew so much about the problems we were trying to solve – malnutrition, inequality, climate change – because they spend their days with their soil, their crops, and their animals. I learned that if we work together, we can achieve so much more.   

Even as I moved further away from Iowa, far from Dr. Borlaug’s office and fields, I never lost perspective on his advice. In Rwanda at CIP, I had a chance to work closely with the 2016 World Food Prize Laureates, and I saw how they had used similar “Take it to the farmer” philosophies to ensure that economic perspectives, environmental data, food and cultural preferences, and nutritional demands were combined with plant breeding to provide the very best plant varieties to farmers.

Recently I traced Dr. Borlaug’s footsteps back to Latin America to start EarthEmpower, a food company that processes native and traditional crops in Mexico and Guatemala, together with indigenous women to build climate resilient and food secure communities. The company is an Iowa company, recognizing my roots-- the Fields of Opportunities, Iowa State University, the World Food Prize, the heroes like Dr. Borlaug, and the foundation that formed me.  

I don’t know if Dr. Borlaug would have ever advised me to start a small business working with women farmers, but what I do know is I have found my way in the world to listen and learn from farmers and channel my skill, passion, and energy as we find solutions together. Forever inspired by Dr. Borlaug’s call to action, “Take it to the farmer”, I and EarthEmpower will continue to fight endlessly to ensure farmers have access to the best options for the fight against poverty and malnutrition.  

04/09/2018 8:00 AM |Add a comment |Comments (2)
Even as a young woman in Iowa with a dream to end hunger and seeking wisdom from Norman Borlaug, you were already influencing those around you. I give thanks for your passionate call to alleviate hunger and your spiritual oneness with all of creation. You are a blessing to our world!

Barb Mittman | 04/10/2018 8:14 PM
Awesome, Rachael. Besides Dr. Borlaug influence, your parents taught you well.

JoAnn Miller | | 04/09/2018 6:09 PM
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