William Ronnie Coffman, Ph.D., grew up in the small town of Stoney Point about four miles from Dalton in western Hopkins County. The son of Floyd and Gladys Coffman, he attended and graduated from Dalton High School in 1961.
Being greatly influenced by math teacher and principal A.O. Richards, Coffman followed the education trail to Henderson Community College with aspirations of becoming a math teacher. But after transferring to the University of Kentucky, the world of agronomy opened up for him.
In Lexington, the young Coffman discovered the science and technology of producing plants that would spark a lifelong career of study, research and implementation that would take him around the world to help some of the poorest cultures in their quest to raise enough food for their people.
As a graduate student, he was accepted at Cornell University, where he attained his Ph.D. After graduation, he was offered a job as a rice breeder at the International Rice Research Institute in the Philippines, where he worked until 1981. He then returned to Cornell as faculty.
“I had never seen the ocean until I was 21 years old,” said Coffman. “When I was growing up, it was a big deal to go to Evansville with my dad to take off the cows. I always wanted to travel. When I got into this work, it was a dream come true for me. I'm 70 years old and still enjoy every minute of it.”
Coffman spoke to SurfKY News during a recent telephone interview from New York. He had just returned from Ghana in West Africa, and was preparing for a quick trip to Mexico, and then for a month-long trek across Africa, Turkey and Pakistan.
From his work in the Philippines, where he helped a generation survive the ravages of war by helping ensure food availability, he is now the leader of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative as well as the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat project, which is funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department for International Development. Coffman is helping another generation combat what he believes is one of greatest threats to world food supplies.
“The biggest work we're doing right now is related to wheat and wheat rust,” said Coffman. “It's a major disease called Stem Rust. It's the source of the great biblical plague that blows through the air. It's in East Africa now but it could eventually blow around the world.”
One of the strategies for combating the disease is producing new resistant varieties of wheat, said Coffman. He has been traveling several countries of Africa working with scientific and administrative colleagues in developing and implementing plans. Without help, millions of low income people will be in jeopardy.
“The supply of food grains is very important,” Coffman said. “It keeps the price low enough for poor people to afford it. Most people instinctively think of hunger as a problem of food production. But it's a problem of poverty. It stems from people not having the means to buy food or to grow it. I work to help by increasing the supply of food, and this, in turn, will help achieve stability. The political stability of the world is dependent on the access of a safe and secure food supply.”
Coffman pulls from background on the family farm as he works with rural extension agents and farmers around the globe.
“It's a natural advantage with agriculture science and (plant) breeding,” he said. “My father was a wonderful manager. He did a great job of farming and I learned a lot from him.'
In a rapidly changing industry, more women are becoming managers of the family farm while husbands leave to work industrial jobs in the cities to make ends meet, said Coffman. That trend is worldwide, he said.
“There's just a fraction of people in rural areas compared to the urban areas,” said Coffman. “If you go west, you'll see in Nebraska and Kansas, people driving 200 miles to work. And with urban development worldwide, you find more women left to tend the farm. Women have always worked hard on the farm while raising children.”
Coffman said there are very few female wheat scientists and he believes more women should be aware of the opportunities that are available.
In October, Coffman's work was recognized by the Global Confederation of Higher Education Associations for Agricultural and Life Sciences, an organization representing more than 600 universities worldwide. GCHERA presented him with a $50,000 award at Nanjing Agricultural University in China Oct. 20.
Coffman donated the money to the Advancing Women in Agriculture Through Research and Education initiative.
While sowing seeds that could prevent hunger in third world countries, Coffman also keeps a close eye on agriculture in the U.S.
What is the greatest threat to crops in the nation?
“Water,” said Coffman. “Water is still a problem worldwide. It's not so much in Kentucky but look to the west and the west coast. A lot of the fossil water is being pumped down faster than it's being replenished. Maybe a lot of agriculture needs to shift back to east of the Mississippi. Right now, we have a project trying to develop growing broccoli along the east coast.”
Coffman also encourages the importance of local farmers.“We're seeing an increasing number of young people interested in getting back to the family farm,” he said. “That's a good thing.”
Rita Dukes Smith
SurfKY News Director
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