How an NTBG Education Program and Globe-Trotting Botanist David Fairchild Helped Steer One Reporter from the White House to the Greenhouse

By Jon Letman  

Leaving his sunny California roots behind, budding journalist Daniel Stone — then 22 years old — set off to Washington, D.C., to cover politics. The young reporter had a core interest in environmental issues and saw his position at Newsweek magazine as an opportunity to cover the intersection of public policy and science. In 2009, still less than three years in Washington, Daniel learned of NTBG’s Environmental Journalism Program offered on Kauai; he applied and was accepted.

In hindsight, the program was a turning point in his career. “Not only did I have immediate access to extremely smart and advanced scientific minds, but I also understood the urgency behind things I’d always been interested in.”

As part of the five-day Environmental Journalism Program, Daniel joined six other journalists for a week of immersive instruction focused on plant conservation, ecology, and environmental issues specific to tropical islands.

Impressed by efforts to save the rare plants that he encountered on Kauai, Daniel thought, “These issues are so important and so timely, I can be in a position to write about, explain, and introduce them to a much wider audience.”

Daniel had covered general botany before but says NTBG’s program afforded him the chance to interact directly with people and plants in a setting where the issues were “razor sharp in their relevance and timeliness.” He called the program a novel and eye-opening experience.

Energized and enthused, Daniel returned to Washington eager to expand his environmental reporting. Throughout the coming months, he made a “very deliberate” professional shift toward covering plants, science, and nature.

Months later, Daniel enrolled in a two-year graduate program on environmental science and policy, after which he decided it was time to make his move.

From the White House to the Greenhouse

It was 2012 and Daniel was covering the White House by then. It was a plum beat — every political reporter’s dream job — but Daniel couldn’t betray his passion for science. When the opportunity arose, he accepted a job as an articles editor for National Geographic.

At the time, Daniel was unfamiliar with the early 20th century National Geographic board member and contributing editor David Fairchild. But when a colleague described the historic figure as an “adventurer botanist,” Daniel’s curiosity was piqued and he embarked on what would grow into a three-year project researching the legendary plant explorer’s diaries, journals, and photographs as well as thousands of archival documents.

Seeing the potential for a fresh examination of the legendary plant collector, Daniel contacted Fairchild’s surviving grandchildren and planned a trip to Fairchild’s historic residence, The Kampong, in Coconut Grove, Florida.

By his own admission, Daniel became “obsessed” with Fairchild’s story. It was during his 2014 visit to The Kampong, and to the actual study where Fairchild had written his most influential books, that Daniel realized he had unwittingly returned to NTBG.

Daniel described the rush of inspiration he felt as he sat on a bench on The Kampong lawn gazing out at the placid waters of Biscayne Bay. “It really clicked at that moment,” Daniel recalled. A one-time NTBG student and writer for National Geographic, Daniel was pursuing — and felt pursued by — the story of a man who had his own deep ties to both organizations.

Over the next three years, Daniel’s research led him on a journey from The Kampong to the National Agricultural Library in Maryland, north to the Nova Scotia seaside estate of Fairchild’s father-in-law inventor Alexander Graham Bell, and east to the Yokohama nursery from where Fairchild introduced the sakura (cherry blossom trees) that have become synonymous with the U.S. capital.

Daniel’s own transformation — from political reporter to authoring a book about the plant explorer — stems, in no small part, to his participation in NTBG’s Environmental Journalism Program.

He says it’s difficult for him to imagine himself writing this book without having had a relationship with NTBG and the people he met. “I wouldn’t have realized how interesting plants could be if I hadn’t met people who showed me.”

The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats

David Fairchild — plant explorer, innovator, diplomat, and yes, sometimes spy and thief — revolutionized what Americans eat. The remarkable story of this icon of agriculture, and his countless successes (and failures) are documented in author Daniel Stone’s recently published book The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats.

This new history recounts the early decades of Fairchild’s life (1869-1954), focusing on his career after moving from the plains of Kansas to his humble beginnings in the 1890s as a junior scientist studying plant pathology at the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA). Daniel reveals how Fairchild went on to explore and collect thousands of plants around the world alongside his wealthy and colorful patron, Barbour Lathrop.

The Food Explorer is the story of a man dedicated to enriching the American agricultural palette, helping farmers adopt new crops, and encouraging a sometimes reluctant public to accept new foods and plants.

Daniel paints a vivid portrait of Fairchild circling the globe with growing enthusiasm and confidence, searching for plants of economic and nutritional value. Returning with his bounty of seeds, cuttings, and fruits, Fairchild struggled to distribute and establish a market for culinary and agricultural curiosities, such as a leafy European peasant food called kale, an Andean grain named quinoa, and new varieties of okra, beans, melons, peppers, flax, and thousands of other plants.

Transforming the American Food Landscape

Fairchild’s best-known introductions include 38 varieties of mangos, Chilean avocados, Iraqi dates, Egyptian cotton, Bavarian hops, Italian seedless grapes, olives, cashews, peaches, pomegranates, and citrus of all stripes.

And while Fairchild’s government collections are well documented, Daniel notes the widely varying estimates of how many plants he actually introduced. USDA records confirm he was responsible for more than 5,000 plant introductions but other estimates range from “many thousands” to as high as 150,000.

In addition to the formidable roster of thousands of food crops, Fairchild was also responsible for introducing more than 3,000 sakura (cherry blossom trees) to Washington, D.C.. The story of the horticultural challenges and the diplomatic tightrope Fairchild walked to get the beloved Japanese trees from a nursery in Yokohama to the banks of the Potomac River described one of the most difficult and risky endeavors of his career.

As Daniel points out, “Fairchild is celebrated for his success… but he had a lot of failure too.” He cites the mangosteen as an example of a fruit Fairchild adored but was unsuccessful in establishing as a widely grown food in the United States. Fairchild called it “queen of tropical fruits,” but the mangosteen was also bulky, difficult to ship, easy to damage, and required a lot of effort to extract the small but delicate sweet flesh from the leathery rind. Alas, Fairchild’s favorite fruit never caught on.

Much of Fairchild’s USDA plant-collecting ended at the beginning of World War I as Americans grew more insular and cautious of all things foreign. The book’s final chapter recounts Fairchild’s later years, collecting on behalf of private plant enthusiasts in the 1920s and ’30s, concluding with Fairchild’s famed Chêng Ho expedition of 1939.

To read Daniel Stone’s exhaustively researched account of one of America’s premier plant explorers is to come away better informed about the history, science, politics, and plants of the world in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The Food Explorer, both timely and timeless, is a delight whether you’re a botanist, a gardener, a farmer, or just someone who loves to eat and read.

Daniel Stone’s The Food Explorer: The True Adventures of the Globe-Trotting Botanist Who Transformed What America Eats416 pages (Dutton) is available in hardcover, eBook and, audio.

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