12 Most Game Changing Agriculturalists

12 Most Game Changing Agriculturalists


The agriculture world is full of innovators. Farmers are constantly seeking the next incremental or even monumental improvement in how crops and livestock are raised.

The individuals below have helped shape the ag industry into what it is today. From machines that revolutionized the industry to agronomic practices that are as true today as they were over 200 years ago, there is no shortage of great minds in farming.

1. Norman Borlaug

Nobel Peace Prize laureate and founder of the World Food Prize, Dr. Norman Borlaug is often called the father of the Green Revolution. By breeding varieties of wheat able to withstand disease and support high yields, Dr. Borlaug was instrumental in bringing Mexico into an era of self-sufficiency from one of subsistence. Hardier crops and new farming methods spread to other parts of the world like Asia through the efforts of Borlaug and those like him spurring a great leap in the productivity of agriculture across the globe.

2. Gregor Mendel

Experiments in crossing different varieties of pea plants in the 1800’s carried out by Gregor Mendel, are the foundation of modern genetics. Thanks to the efforts of Mendel, farmers, researchers, geneticists, and plant breeders gained a much greater understanding of how the physiological and genetic properties of parent organisms are expressed in their offspring. Even today in the age of crop biotechnology the fundamentals of Mendel’s findings are still at work. Crossing varieties to obtain the best performing hybrid seed is a key step in reaping a great harvest. The potential of a well-bred seed can be extremely high, and with skill and some luck a farmer hopes each year to achieve that potential.

3. George Washington Carver

Peanut butter is often the first agricultural product that comes to mind when people think of George Washington Carver, but the man is responsible for much more. Born into slavery during the Civil War, Carver became the first black student to attend Iowa State, honing his botany skills. From there he went on to teach at the famed Tuskegee Institute, heading its agricultural programs — encouraging farmers to not only to diversify their crops, but taking the idea further by touting all the potential uses of those crops beyond raw material for food. While Carver was a great agricultural pioneer, maybe his real legacy was the success he achieved given his circumstance at birth in such a tumultuous time in American history.

4. John Deere

John Deere isn’t only the name of arguably the most recognizable agricultural equipment manufacturer on the planet. John Deere is the name of the man who 175 years ago produced a plow allowing settlers of the Great Plains to more easily till the tough, sticky soils they encountered. Deere, a blacksmith by trade, formed a polished steel blade that could tackle sticky soils without the constant cleaning required by cast iron plows of the day. The success of that first plow is evident in the advances and massive success of the multinational company so well known today.

5. Temple Grandin

Dr. Temple Grandin is likely the most respected name in animal husbandry. Her love of animals has brought her to the forefront of animal welfare practices in agriculture. Dr. Grandin’s approach to designing beef cattle slaughter plants follows her philosophy of respecting livestock while they live, and giving them a humane, painless death when the time comes.

Temple Grandin’s continued success has made her well-known outside agriculture. Being autistic herself, she has been outspoken about managing her autism while showing others how to change their way of thinking to be able to accomplish any goal. In 2010, Time featured Dr. Grandin as one of their 100 Most Influential People. In the same year, Claire Danes starred as Grandin in a movie about her life.

6. Gebisa Ejeta

Born and educated in Ethiopia, Ejeta furthered his education in the states by earning his Masters and PhD in Plant Breeding and Genetics from Purdue University where he works today. It has been said that his work with sorghum has fed and saved millions of lives in his homeland. Some of his most noted work stems from developing drought and striga resistant varieties of sorghum. Striga is a parasitic weed that plagues sorghum crops on African farms. His research earned Dr. Ejeta an appointment as Board Member for International Food and Agriculture Development by President Obama, and a national medal of honor awarded by the president of Ethiopia.

7. Eli Whitney

Eli Whitney is widely known as the 1794 inventor of the cotton gin. Gins turned the laborious task of separating cotton fiber by hand from the cotton plant into a mechanical process. Whitney’s cotton gin greatly improved cotton industry productivity, and the invention’s effects are still felt today as cotton remains one of the world’s most important crops.

Eli Whitney also claims fame from championing the use of interchangeable parts. First used by Whitney to produce standardized parts for firearms that could be assembled by workers less skilled than accomplished gunsmiths, the idea of making such parts has obviously spread to nearly all forms of modern manufacturing including agricultural equipment.

8. Joseph Glidden

Not unlike Thomas Edison and the light bulb or John Deere and the plow, Joseph Glidden improved the design of an existing product in such a way that it changed the history of agriculture and a nation. By creating barbed wire that was strong, long lasting and affordable, Glidden offered homesteaders of the Great Plains a better option to protect their land, crops, and livestock from damage and injury. Bulky wooden fences requiring much labor and material were the norm before barbed wire became practical. History explains the effect Joseph Glidden’s wire had on American agriculture in a short period of time.

“Without the alternative offered by cheap and portable barbed wire, few farmers would have attempted to homestead of the Great Plains, since they could not have afforded to protect their farms from grazing herds of cattle and sheep. Barbed wire also brought a speed end to the era of the open-range cattle industry.”

9. Cyrus McCormick

McCormick’s mechanical reaper, patented in 1834, changed the grain industry in much the same way as Eli Whitney’s cotton gin altered cotton production. No more would farm laborers need to cut plants by hand before threshing the grain. Imagine what a revolution that must have been going from walking fields with a scythe to cutting with a horse-drawn machine. Many years later the processes of harvesting and threshing would be combined into a single machine known today of course as a combine.

10. Hiram Moore

And credit for the combine goes to one Hiram Moore. Once more, an entrepreneurial individual increased farm productivity while reducing manual labor — this time by having taken two previous history-altering devices and meshing them together in one piece of mechanical efficiency. Early combines were pull-type with self propelled versions arriving on the scene in 1887 and patented by George Stockton Berry.

11. Thomas Jefferson

As if being a founding father and author of the Declaration of Independence wasn’t enough, Thomas Jefferson was also one of the great agricultural proponents of his day. He traveled the world introducing crops and practices not previously utilized in America. Jefferson studied plants in great detail in his own gardens — gardens that can still be found at his home today. He called upon America’s farmer to employ crop rotations and tillage methods that maintained the fertility of the land.

Thomas Jefferson believed agriculture was the driving force behind a successful nation, evidenced by quotes such as “Cultivators of the earth are the most valuable citizens. They are the most vigorous, the most independent, the most virtuous, and they are tied to their country and wedded to it’s liberty and interests by the most lasting bands.”

12. Howard G. Buffett

Farmer son of the Oracle of Omaha, Warren Buffett, Howard G. Buffet is looking to change agriculture worldwide not unlike Norman Borlaug before him. Through the Howard G. Buffett Foundation he hopes to improve agriculture for the world’s most impoverished people. His work isn’t limited to the poor though. Buffett looks to improve all of agriculture. U.S. ag industry magazines often contain inserts sponsored by his foundation touting the benefits of agronomic practices like no till and cover cropping. Environmentally and economically sound principles are at the heart of much of the foundation’s work. Howard Buffett is encouraging farmers of all stripes to use inputs responsibly and effectively in order to feed an ever-growing world population.

Inventors, philanthropists, scientists, farmers, and combinations thereof all make this list of great contributors to modern agriculture. Some, like Carver and Grandin, broke societal boundaries beyond agriculture. From simple ideas that revolutionized farm equipment to introducing sweeping changes across the globe, the dozen names mentioned here have all had a hand in making the world better through ag.

Featured image courtesy of The Knowles Gallery licensed via Creative Commons.


Brian Scott


Brian Scott is a 4th generation farmer from Northwest Indiana. He grows corn, soybeans, popcorn, and wheat on 2,300 acres with his father and grandfather. Brian graduated from Purdue University with a degree in Soil and Crop Management. He is married to his high school sweetheart, Nicole, and they have one son. In addition to farming, family, and social media, Brian enjoys all things automotive, playing golf, and watching football and basketball.

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Excellent job, Brian. I wasn't kidding when I called you the "Pat Flynn of agriculture". You're everywhere.

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Brian, this was really interesting to me for a variety of reasons. I am a huge Temple Grandin fan, and I love how your post wasn't just abou the technical parts of agriculture, but how it intersects with society. When I visited Guatemala in 2011, it was quickly brought home to me that what happens in the USA is intertwined with what happens down there (or maybe it's the other way around.....). Fascinating!


@biggreenpen Thanks!  And what happens in the rest of the world has an effect here.  Right now the South American crop is having a large effect on grain markets since the US ran short with the 2012 drought.