Ken Quinn

Ken Quinn helped put the World Food Prize on the map, and he knows he has many of the legends of agriculture, including Norman Borlaug, looking over his shoulder. Quinn is retiring as president of the World Food Prize at the end of the year.

DES MOINES — The late Norman Borlaug is the father of the World Food Prize. Long-time Des Moines businessman John Ruan was the man who brought it to the Midwest and provided needed financial backing.

But for 20 years, Ken Quinn has been the person in charge.

Quinn is retiring as president of the World Food Prize at the end of the year, prompting the organization to conduct a search for someone capable of filling his shoes. It may be difficult to picture the prize without him.

“When I came here in 1999 I could hardly find anyone who knew who Norman Borlaug was,” Quinn says as he sits in the art gallery on the second floor of the World Food Prize Hall of Laureates, a beautifully restored beaux arts building on the riverfront that once served as the Des Moines Public Library.

As the boss, he was charged with connecting two dreams. Norman Borlaug wanted the World Food Prize to be the Nobel Prize for agriculture. And John Ruan wanted Des Moines to be the food and agricultural capital of America.

They were daunting goals. At the time, Quinn acknowledges, the prize was housed in a small office downtown and it had one employee. Quinn says he certainly wondered in those early days if he had made a terrible mistake in taking the job.

“I really did think to myself, ‘Did I make a wrong turn?’” Quinn says.

It was a fair question to ask. A Dubuque native, he had earned a Ph.D. in international relations. He had spent 32 years in the U.S. Foreign Service, starting in a rural area of Vietnam during the war in the 1960s and ending with a stint as ambassador to Cambodia. Along the way he had helped eliminate the Khmer Rouge and spent time in Iowa working with then Gov. Robert Ray to bring Vietnamese refugees to the state.

But the food prize was something new.

Quinn set about his job in a couple of ways. First, he decided it needed to be expanded, and it needed to be elevated so that people would consider the entire event to be more prestigious. One of the first proposals he made to Borlaug and Ruan was to hold the laureate ceremony in the state capitol building.

It was not an easy sell.

“I wanted it to look like a medal prize ceremony,” he says now.

Borlaug and Ruan were not impressed with the idea. Still, he eventually convinced them and got permission to use the building. Then came the effort to build up the prize. That meant expanding the fall award event from a small one-day ceremony to a week-long package of activities.

It also meant building the youth institute from about 25 Iowa kids to a large number of teenagers from across the country. It meant expanding the internship program for college students and adding a hunger summit and doing all kinds of other activities.

Building the prize up also meant finding a more prestigious home. Prize backers began looking at what it would take to buy and completely update and restore the old library in Des Moines. The cost was in the millions. It required fundraising and planning.

And building the prize meant building up Borlaug. Quinn tirelessly promoted the Iowa native and Nobel Peace Prize winner, eventually convincing state officials to put Borlaug’s statue in the U.S. Capitol.

It didn’t hurt that the symposium subjects Quinn and his staff chose for those early years were incredibly timely. In 2000, he brought in experts to talk about GMOs. In 2001 it was bioterrorism and in 2002, it was global water supplies.

Quinn has decided it is time to step down and let someone else take the reins. Of course, that does not really mean he plans to slow down.

“I don’t really have anything lined up,” he says when asked about plans. “I want to tell stories.”

He talks about the need for a “Borlaug 101” class about the history of human agriculture, which he would like to see taught at Iowa State University and other land grant colleges. He hopes to get a monument or memorial about agriculture on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. And he talks about the need to build roads in Africa.

That last item is really a return to the beginning for Quinn. If there was any one lesson he learned during his time in Vietnam in the 1960s, it was the idea civilization and peace followed roads. Where good roads and transportation systems were built, peace and prosperity seemed to follow.

“There was an old French farm to market road in the area where I was stationed,” he explains. “It connected eight villages. We rebuilt it to four of the villages and it was amazing to see what happened. It was an overnight change.”

That change included the use of newer and higher-yielding rice, the ability to ship that rice out and bring other goods in, the advent of better education, and the movement of information.

“Two of the greatest advantages the Unites States has are roads and research,” he says.

Meanwhile, Quinn watches the world. He has made four trips to China already this year. He understands the relationship between China and the United States, between Chinese leader Xi Jinping and Iowa, between feeding the world and developing international relationships.

And as he talks, he cannot resist talking about his surroundings.

“Everything in this building is a story,” he says as he gazes at the artwork in the room. The paintings and sculptures include Borlaug and Henry Wallace and George Washington Carver — and Ken Quinn.

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Gene Lucht is public affairs editor for Iowa Farmer Today, Missouri Farmer Today and Illinois Farmer Today.