Not unlike scores of other young boys carried by the winds of war during the 1940s, 18-year-old Leon Hesser found himself oceans away from his family-run farm and charged with fighting the enemy. But, for Hesser, an Indiana native, exposure to global cultural differences while stationed in the Philippines and Japan caused more than just a better appreciation for American liberties and luxuries.
They stirred a personal desire to help spread the wealth.
The recently released Nurture the Heart, Feed the World: The Inspiring Life Journeys of Two Vagabonds is a book chronicling the international efforts by Hesser to help under-developed countries establish self-sustaining agricultural programs, beginning in the 1960s.
“In this book we wanted to show Americans that America has done wonderful things to help poor people around the world,” said Hesser, who now lives with his wife Florence (the second vagabond referred to in the book's title) in Florida.
From more than two decades of work through the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID), then later as a consultant, Hesser assisted in improving agricultural practices in more than 20 countries, including increasing wheat production in both Pakistan and India, soybeans in Japan and fruits and vegetables in Egypt.
His work coincided and partnered with famed agricultural pioneer Nathan Borlaug, who was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970 and who wrote the foreword in the book.
“If I had not gone into the Army, I would have remained a farmer for the rest of my life,” Hesser reflected.
Instead, upon military discharge and after selling the family farm, both Hesser, at age 30, and his wife bucked the traditional profile of freshmen students and entered Purdue University together.
Both went on to earn doctorate's degrees — he in agriculture and she in education.
Pakistan was receiving 1.5 tons of red wheat annually from the United States when Hesser arrived in 1966 as USAID technical director.
Through a $25,000 grant, he and a team of 12 U.S. field agents were able to secure 50 tons of wheat variety LermaRoho 64 from Mexico and provided specialized training for Pakistan agricultural field agents.
Ultimately, two new agricultural universities in Pakistan were started with Hesser's help. By 1968, Pakistan was no longer dependent on international aid for food.
A few years later, India underwent a similar transformation. “It was very dramatic. It was a country that went from starvation to self sufficiency,” Hesser said.
He recalled that during the era when the U.S. and European governments reached out to combat a hunger crisis in certain sectors of the world, many domestic farmers held some resentment.
“Some people in the farming community, and many in the United States, say we (government officials) hurt their exports of food commodities. But several studies show that developing poorer countries actually increase their level of imports once developed.”
From 1995 until 2000 Hesser made 23 trips to the Ukraine, where he helped that country reassign government-owned farmland under the former communist regime to private ownership.
For that country's farmers, the transition, Hesser said, was “emotional and very intense.”