America's 'Food Explorer'

Botanist David Fairchild brought over 20,000 new plants to America

Created date

July 20th, 2018
David Fairchild, left, meeting plant explorer Frank Meyer for whom Meyer lemons are named.

David Fairchild, left, meeting plant explorer Frank Meyer for whom Meyer lemons are named.

If you drink green juice packed with kale, eat whole grains like quinoa, and seek out healthy-fat-laden avocados, you have David Fairchild to thank. Fairchild brought tens of thousands of new plants and crop varieties to American farmers, and the fruit of his labor made a lasting impact on both the U.S. economy and the average American’s diet.

Despite his significant contributions, Fairchild is hardly a household name. Fortunately, a new book by National Geographic Editor Daniel Stone, The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats (Dutton, 2018), gives Fairchild the long overdue attention he deserves.

Rooted in the ground

From the start, the American economy was rooted in the ground. However, toward the end of the nineteenth century, the cost of overexpansion began to show. Too much land was being farmed, and most farmers were growing the same crops, undercutting profitability.

Farmers like Mary Elizabeth Lease from Wichita, Kans., were angry. “We went to work and plowed and planted; the rains fell, the sun shone, nature smiled, and we raised the big crop that they told us to,” said Lease. “And what became of it? Eight-cent corn, ten-cent oats, two-cent beef, and no price at all for butter and eggs—that’s what came of it.”

Fed up, the farmers turned to Washington for help.

Mr. Fairchild goes to Washington

Meanwhile, David Fairchild, a recent graduate of Kansas State College of Agriculture, was making his way to the U.S. Department of Agriculture in Washington, D.C.

Working as a junior scientist, Fairchild focused on preventing and managing plant diseases and infestations. It was dull work for a young man who fancied himself more of an explorer than a bureaucrat.

When the Smithsonian offered Fairchild an opportunity to participate in a scientific exchange in Europe, he quickly accepted.

On board a steamship bound for Naples, Italy, Fairchild met a wealthy eccentric named Barbor Lathrop. Fairchild told Lathrop he was headed to Europe to study plant fungus. Lathrop scoffed, “Why study microscopic stuff instead of plants that man can use? If you’re a botanist, why don’t you collect plant specimens for the Smithsonian Institution and pay for your trip that way?”

Lathrop’s suggestion stuck with Fairchild long after they parted. If he could bring American farmers new and different crops, their profitability would rise and so would the nation’s.

Upon returning to Washington, Fairchild presented his former boss at the Department of Agriculture with a plan to expand and invigorate American agriculture. It started by establishing the Office of Seed and Plant Introduction.   

The mission of the office was to bring new varieties of plants to American farmers, and as the office’s sole employee, it became Fairchild’s singular pursuit.

Bananas, mangos, and pistachios

In his quest, Fairchild circled the globe three times. He traveled to Corsica in search of better lemons. He went to Chile for avocados. In Padua, Italy, he found the sultania rosea—a seedless grape that is delicious when eaten fresh and is also used for wine and raisins.   

Along the way, Fairchild was arrested and held as a spy. He encountered cannibals, wild animals, and tropical diseases. None of it dampened his resolve to find the best plants on Earth.

The end result of all those adventures: bananas, mangos, dates, and many others. He also introduced better varieties of plants already established in the U.S., like lemons, wheat, and hops.

Hits and misses

One plant he was certain would grow well in California was the avocado. Fairchild traveled to South America and brought back as many varieties of avocado as he could find. One of those varieties became what’s known today as Hass avocados. Fairchild’s single shipment of avocado plants spawned an entire industry in California.

Other Fairchild finds took longer to catch on. For example, he found a grain in the Andes Mountains called quinoa. The technology to measure a food’s nutritional content did not yet exist, so no one knew that quinoa was actually a protein and not a grain—or that it is gluten-free. It would take another hundred years to “discover” the wonders of quinoa.

The blossoms

In 1905 Fairchild married Marion Bell, daughter of inventor Alexander Graham Bell. They built their home on ten acres in nearby Chevy Chase, Md.

While on an exploration in Japan, Fairchild came upon an extraordinary grove of cherry trees. They did not bear fruit, but the trees’ blossoms were breathtaking, so he ordered 1,000 of them for his home.

Come spring, Fairchild’s orchard of pink blooms caused quite a stir—drawing people from all around. One of the curious onlookers was First Lady Alice Taft.

Fairchild’s cherry blossoms so impressed the First Lady, she had 3,000 of them planted around the National Mall in Washington.

End of an era

For years the Department of Agriculture welcomed all kinds of new plants. But suddenly, safeguarding American crops from disease and pest infestations became the priority. The Quarantine Act of 1912 essentially closed the border to plants. The heyday of food exploration was over.