The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats
is a 2018 biography
of David Fairchild written by National Geographic
editor Daniel Stone. Born in 1869 and raised in Kansas, Fairchild grew up in a post-Civil War America that subsisted largely on a dull diet of meat and potatoes. By the time Fairchild died in 1954, he’d planted the seeds (almost literally) for an agricultural and culinary revolution that transformed American appetites. His botanical forages – and sometimes, biopiracy – took him to more than fifty countries and brought avocados, mangoes, kale, and designer hops to the U.S.
As a child, Fairchild has dreams of visiting the Malay islands. This ambition may seem surprising for a Kansas boy, but Fairchild encounters unusual people and ideas thanks to his father’s position as President of Kansas State University. Scholars from around the world visit Fairchild’s home, including Alfred Russel Wallace, a naturalist who has studied the biodiversity of Malaysia. Wallace gives young David a book titled The Malay Archipelago
and sparks his imagination with visions of exotic flora and enticing fruits.
Along with travel, Fairchild is passionate about plants. Living in rural Kansas, he’s well-acquainted with US agriculture and knows that farmers are struggling. During the nineteenth century, the majority of American farms produce the same three crops: corn, wheat, and oats. The market is glutted, and farmers resort to burning their crops rather than selling them at a loss. When the first agricultural depression strikes in the 1890s, farmers appeal to the federal government for help. By age twenty-two, Fairchild has left Kansas and is working at the US Department of Agriculture, hoping to improve farmers’ fortunes.
When Fairchild learns of a Smithsonian grant to travel to Naples, Italy, he applies and gets it. He boards a steamer ship in 1894, and during his voyage across the Atlantic, meets a wealthy fellow passenger named Barbour Lathrop. Single, forty-something, and endowed with a large inheritance from his successful father, Lathrop has circled the globe a dozen times. He entertains Fairchild with stories of his exploits in far-flung places like South America and Asia.
Once in Naples, Fairchild unexpectedly becomes a bio-pirate. He is working for the Smithsonian Zoological Station studying algae in the Bay of Naples when he receives a letter from the American Secretary of Agriculture. Per the instructions in the letter, Fairchild goes to Corsica to collect samples of the Mediterranean island’s exceptional citron, a fruit related to lemons. The authorities mistakenly accuse him of political espionage and arrest him. Although he doesn’t speak French, he somehow convinces them he is innocent, and he is released. Before skedaddling off the island, however, Fairchild snags some citron cuttings and smuggles them out. He packs the samples in potatoes to preserve them and sends them to California, where they boost the citrus farmers’ production.
Without warning, Barbour Lathrop turns up in Naples, offering to fulfill Fairchild’s childhood dream with an all-expenses-paid trip to the Malay islands. Fairchild hesitates (for a year) but is ultimately persuaded to join Lathrop’s globe-trotting adventures. When the pair finally sails through the Malay Archipelago, the native islanders, having never seen light-skinned people, shoot arrows at them.
Back in Washington and on the USDA payroll again, Fairchild hatches a plan to increase the country’s agricultural wealth by introducing “in America as many of the valuable crops of the world as can be grown here.” He convinces the agricultural secretary to establish an Office of Seed and Plant Introduction with Fairchild as its director. Once again, Lathrop appears and offers to sponsor Fairchild’s global search for novel crops.
In 1898, Fairchild and Lathrop launch their quest with a voyage to Jamaica, where they find sweet mangoes and dwarf oranges. Traveling into South America, they come across a new type of avocado in Chile which seems a promising candidate for California’s agriculture. Next, they mount donkeys to cross the Andes Mountains in search of quinoa. The journey turns perilous when Fairchild’s donkey slips, and they both nearly plunge into a canyon.
Having survived South America, the pair of food “spies” continue their mission in Europe. They collect samples of fava beans in England, broccoli in Venice, and seedless grapes in Padua. The grape cuttings take root in California, proving to be foundational for the state’s wine and raisin industries.
Fairchild uses his increasingly refined diplomatic skills to procure hops from German growers. While Americans already grow hops, they’re vastly inferior to the German variety, which is so prized that dogs guard the fields. In the village of Polepy, Fairchild stops at the beer hall, drinks with the locals, and flatters the hops farmers. Finally, one farmer offers to slip him some cuttings on the sly, so his fellow Germans won’t know.
For several years, Fairchild and Lathrop crisscross the globe, sourcing from Baghdad the dates that would flourish in California, and from Croatia, the kale that would sit on the back-burner in America until the twenty-first century. Their adventures become harrowing, at times, too. Fairchild contracts typhoid fever in Ceylon, and Barbour almost succumbs to yellow fever. A unique danger lurks in Fiji, where natives still practice cannibalism, but Fairchild placates them with an unusual gift: ice.
Fairchild marries the younger daughter of Alexander Graham Bell – Marian Bell – in 1905. After furnishing the U.S. with 4,000 new or improved plants, Fairchild exchanges globetrotting for family life in Maryland, but others in the “Plant Introduction” office continue the scavenger hunt. Most notable in Stone’s book is Frank Meyer, whose travels by foot through China are fruitful (he “discovers” soybeans and the “Meyer” lemon) but hazardous (he dies there).
Fairchild’s legacy is not all fruits and vegetables. Credit goes to him for America’s introduction to Egyptian cotton, as well as Japan’s donation of roots for the cherry trees that bloom each spring in Washington. Due to rising concerns about invasive foreign insects, Congress passes the Plant Quarantine Act of 1912. The Office of Seed and Plant Introduction limps along for a while longer but closes in the 1920s.
Daniel Stone notes that nineteenth-century “America’s goal wasn’t just to farm; it was to construct an industrial agricultural system bigger and more profitable than any group of people had ever built.” David Fairchild’s work to diversify American agriculture contributed immensely to its size and economic strength. And so, as Stone also points out, “We are a richer country, we are a more advanced country, because this work was undertaken.”