My Cornell Story
When I was about four years old, living in Cuba, I often played with my dad’s fur-lined gloves while he told me strange stories about a far-off frigid place called Ithaca where he studied poultry science and where I would follow—amid Eskimo, walruses and polar bears, I imagined.
Fourteen years later, trudging up the hill as a freshman, I was glad for the gloves.
I made many trips back to the warmth of Cuba, but my returns ended in my sophomore year, when my father, Pedro A. Sanchez-Diaz CALS MS ’33, informed me I would have to strike off on my own financially because he could not take money out of Cuba. I survived thanks to a CALS tuition scholarship, and several jobs: I washed dishes at my fraternity house for my board, served as a house officer to pay for my room, and cleaned laundromats downtown at night to have pocket money to date girls and put gas in the VW bug I had bought from profits I made selling eggs at my father’s farm.
I had hoped to return to Cuba with a BS degree and join my father in business, but it soon became evident this was not going to happen, so I looked elsewhere.
I was particularly drawn to seminars warning that India’s 200 million population was going to starve and precipitate a global catastrophe. So I went to see Dr. Nyle Brady, then head of the Agronomy Department, regarding a Ph.D. in tropical soils. When he said there was no such course, I reminded him of Ezra’s famous words, “I will found an institution where anyone can get instruction in any study.”
He acquiesced, saying that if I did well, I could go to the Philippines, where the esteemed Richard Bradfield—a founder of the International Rice Research Institute (IRRI) and namesake of Bradfield Hall—could be my mentor. So I did, teaching an undergraduate soil fertility course at the University of the Philippines at Los Baños and doing my field research at IRRI. This was roughly during 1965-67, at the start of the Green Revolution, so it was an exciting time.
I then joined the faculty at North Carolina State University, where my first assignment was to bring the Green Revolution of rice to Peru. Working in the irrigated coast, rice yields doubled in three years, making Peru self-sufficient in the crop.
While there, I became fascinated by slash-and-burn agriculture. I returned to campus in 1972, wrote the first edition “Properties and Management of Soils in the Tropics,” and had a profusion of graduate students working at long-term research sites in Yurimaguas, Peru and Brasília, Brazil—the latter in collaboration with Cornell.
Of my 23 years at NC State, 10 of them were spent living in the tropics. I spent another 10 years falling in love with Africa, alongside my new wife, soil ecologist Cheryl Palm. As director general of the International Center for Research in Agroforestry in Nairobi, Kenya, now called the World Agroforestry Center, I transformed the organization into a research center that helped many farmers get out of hunger by advocating for agroforestry as a science. During this time, I received two very special honors: The World Food Prize in 2002, and chief of the Luo Community as “Odera Akang’o,” a name by which I am still known across Western Kenya.
While on a sabbatical at the University of California, Berkeley economist Jeffrey Sachs whizzed through campus and offered Cheryl and I positions we could not refuse: senior research scientists at Columbia University, running the UN Millennium Project Task Force on Hunger and establishing a small Tropical Agriculture and Rural Environment Program.
We began the Millennium Villages Project to help empower 80 hungry, disease-ridden and poor villages in 10 African countries to accomplish all the Millennium Development Goals by 2015. I also helped open two regional offices in Bamako and Nairobi, and assisted then UN Secretary General Kofi Annan to call for a uniquely African Green Revolution that focused not only on eliminating hunger, but also improving nutrition, markets and policies in environmentally correct ways.
We both have assisted efforts that increased cereal yields from 1 to 3 tons per hectare in about 10 percent of poor rural African households and sharply reduced child stunting in the Millennium Villages. I am also leading the development of a digital map of soil properties in Africa, and am writing a much-delayed second edition of my tropical soils book.
At age 71, I look back with pride and gratitude at the education and opportunities Cornell gave me. Surrounded by a loving family consisting of a superb wife, three children (one of whom, Jennifer Adriane Sanchez, graduated from CALS in 1988), their spouses and 5.5 grandchildren, I remain healthy enough to continue to assist farmers across the tropics to have a chance for a better life. This is more meaningful to me than all the kudos I have received, including the MacArthur “genius” award and three honorary degrees. As grateful as I am for these honors, I am proud that all Cornell degrees have to be earned, none conferred as honorary ones.