Coffman receives the Yaqui Award from CIMMYT

Linda McCandless
Tuesday, April 18, 2017

CIUDAD OBREGÓN, MEXICO: Ronnie Coffman has received the Yaqui Award in honor of the major contributions he has made in enabling others to develop better wheat varieties. The international professor of plant breeding and genetics and director of International Programs in CALS was awarded the statue of a Yaqui Indian performing the famous “Danza del Vanado,” or “Deer Dance,” from Hans Braun, director of the Wheat Program at the International Maize and Wheat Improvement Center (CIMMYT) on March 22, in Ciudad Obregón, in the heart of the Sonora Valley, in Mexico.

Coffman follows in the footsteps of Cornell Professor Mark Sorrells, who received the award many years ago for his contributions to wheat breeding.

“The figure of the Yaqui Indian is the symbol that we in the CIMMYT Wheat Program have chosen to honor our employees and colleagues, and as a way to show how close we feel to Obregón,” said Braun. “It is the highest and only recognition CIMMYT’s Global Wheat Program gives.”

The Yaqui Valley Indian is a symbol of pride for all Sonorans, symbolizing the beauty and gifts of the natural world, and celebrating the interconnections between Yaquis and Mother Earth. The figure is specifically depicted dressed for and performing a movement of the famous “Danza del Venado,” practiced by the Yaqui Indians of Sonora State.

“I am thrilled,” said Coffman. “The Yaqui is the most central ceremonial figure in Yaqui tradition. I started my career as a plant breeder at CIMMYT, working with Dr. Norman Borlaug, so this means a great deal to me.” Coffman was Dr. Borlaug’s only graduate student, and was with him in the wheat fields of Mexico in 1970 when he won the Nobel Prize.

The Yaqui Indian is presented to CIMMYT staff who have made major contributions during their careers to wheat improvement, and to non-CIMMYT scientists at the time of their retirement. Non-CIMMYT scientists must have been strong supporters of wheat at CIMMYT as collaborators or in other functions. So far, the Yaqui has been presented to 68 people.

Coffman is a strong supporter of international wheat science and CIMMYT, in particular. He received the award for his roles as vice-chair of the Borlaug Global Rust Initiative and director of the Durable Rust Resistance in Wheat and Delivering Genetic Gain in Wheat projects. Cumulative resources from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and the UK Department of International Development of $101 million for those two projects have resulted in the release of scores of new rust-resistant varieties of wheat and significant capacity building for the wheat research community globally.

“Usually we recognize people who have contributed to the development of wheat germplasm,” said Braun. “Ronnie is receiving the award because he has played such a major role in enabling others to develop better wheat varieties. Ronnie is unlikely to retire soon and, like the Nobel Prize, no post mortem awards are given, so we decided to give it to Ronnie now.”

Sanjaya Rajaram, 2014 World Food Prize winner, former CIMMYT Wheat Program Director, and successful wheat breeder who helped develop more than 480 varieties grown over time in more than 51 countries on more than 100 million hectares also received a Yaqui. And so did Rollie Sears, a friend and supporter of CIMMYT for nearly four decades who, as professor and wheat breeder at Kansas State University, developed some of the leading varieties in the Great Plains before moving on to AgriPro and leading AgriPro (now Syngenta) in becoming the leading private wheat breeding company in the US.

“I feel especially honored to receive the award in the company of Rajaram and Rollie, long-time friends and great wheat scientists, said Coffman. “Rajaram and I were at CIMMYT together in 1970, he as a post-doc and I as Borlaug’s PhD student.”