With a lifetime spent focused on sustainable agriculture and agroforestry – and all that entails in the realm of plant breeding and genetics – renowned scientist Howard-Yana Shapiro balances his inquiry into the world of seeds with his love of motorcycles.  On the surface, plants and motorcycles don’t seem to connect, but they’re both integral to Howard’s existence. “Is there any connection between motorcycles and what I do with plants?” muses Howard, who over the course of his long career has been a Fulbright Scholar and Ford Foundation Fellow, university professor and author. He’s also the recipient of the University of California, Davis, College of Agricultural and Environmental Sciences Award of Distinction. To answer that question, he describes a delightful scene, one where days before our conversation, he’d been out for a spin near his Davis, California home aboard his 650cc Moto Guzzi Lario. “The almond trees were blossoming, and these are little pink/white flowers on the trees. Riding through the almond grove it just looks like a series of balls of this kind of color, and the blossoms were dropping their petals because the bees had been pollinating. The wind blows the petals off, and the center forms the almond of course. But the ground looked like it was covered with snow. We can’t see that anywhere else, unless we walk or ride a bicycle, or ideally, a motorcycle. Riding in third gear, 25 miles an hour, just putting along on the Lario wearing an open face helmet and safety glasses, I could see everything and I could smell everything.”

Howard-Yana Shapiro in the 1980s with his Harley-Davidson FL Panhead. [Howard-Yana Shapiro]
It’s a memory that takes Howard back to some of his earliest days of riding, when he was 15 years old on a rather epic road trip that rewarded him with an awakening of his senses that was like nothing else. A friend of the family bought two 1962 Harley-Davidson FLHs from a dealership in Connecticut. From there, he and Howard headed west on the roads of America across the Mid-West, up to the Great Plains and into Washington. When they couldn’t go west anymore, they rode as far north as Prudhoe Bay, Alaska before riding east across Canada and home. They were both rookie riders when they started and learned to handle the bikes in the first 100 miles.  “By 1,000 miles, we were experts. We were so silly, in retrospect – what a crazy thing to do. The dealer gave us a motorcycle riding lesson in the parking lot. The salesman thought we were going to kill ourselves, and said if we made it back, he’d buy the bikes back. Before we left, I went and bought a pair of blue jeans and a couple of t-shirts. We had helmets, goggles and riding boots – there was no riding kit or armored leather jackets. Our sleeping bags were strapped to the back of the bikes and off we went. Eventually, we returned with spare tires and fuel cans strapped to the bikes, and the dealership couldn’t believe we’d made it. They bought the bikes back but at a substantial discount, they were rough! The fulfillment of taking a ride like that as a young person means forever and a day, your life will be inextricably linked to motorcycles.”

Howard-Yana (center) decades back at an AMCA rally with friends. [Howard-Yana Shapiro]
Howard was raised with his two sisters by academically-minded parents. In the late 1940s to early 1950s, the Shapiros lived in tenement housing in New York City, but eventually moved west to Chicago to be closer to grandparents. Before leaving New York, however, Howard spent hours investigating both the Brooklyn Botanical Garden and New York Botanical Garden. He referred to these urban oases as “wonderful refuges” for a youngster keen on agriculture and plants. What enabled him to travel to these gardens – and other places including Coney Island to ride the Parachute Drop — was a balloon-tire bicycle with a small gasoline-powered motor mounted over the front wheel. He bought the bicycle with cash earned collecting bottles, returning the empties for a refund. Although a more powerful Whizzer motor kit for his bicycle was too expensive, while poring over Mechanix Illustrated and Popular Mechanics, he saw ads for a budget-friendly friction-roller motor. “That gave me a sort of freedom so I could go to these places when I wanted to,” Howard recalls, “and go over the Brooklyn Bridge and increase my range – this was the sort of golden age of New York City, post-war, during the mid-1950s.”

Seeds of speed: the sports bikes give the flavor of the thrills Howard-Yana seeks. [Jaimi Lynn Photography]
There were always larger motorcycles around, Howard says, whether he was in New York City or in more suburban Chicago. Policemen on bikes and people in the surrounding neighborhoods who rode. While intrigued, his fascination with motorcycles didn’t really blossom until that cross-country road trip. “It was the beginning,” he says, and adds, “again it’s that time period in the early 1960s when you could simply pull up and stop and camp, and no one would come running out and tell you to get off their property; it was a more gentle moment, is perhaps the best way to describe the time. It was a great experience. I came back grizzled and hardcore and knew this would be a big part of my life. Then I went off to school and got educated.”

A chronological look at Howard-Yana’s tastes in motorcycles, starting with Indian and Harley-Davidson, moving on to Moto Guzzi and Suzuki Katana, then on to Italian sportbikes. [Jaimi Lynn Photography]
After graduating in 1968, Howard moved and worked in the deep South. While there, he says Indian motorcycles were still quite prevalent and he bought a 1947 Indian Chief – it’s a machine he owns to this day. “As I would tour around, I would find little towns where there used to be an Indian shop,” Howard recalls. “I’d go in and find parts that I’d need for my Indian, and in one shop I bought 10 speedometers in their original boxes, never used. I kept them up to about 10 years ago, when I sold some to support my habit of motorcycles – it was just so interesting.” Howard acquired two or three more Indians, but as he and his wife, Nancy, traveled in their pursuit of academia – both were Fulbright Scholars working in Italy in 1972 – he says his eyes were opened to the world of European machines. “I saw this thing called a Ducati up close,” he explains. “I was used to riding a hand-shift ’47 Indian, and here was this sleek thing and I wondered what have I missed? I realized I’d sort of cloistered my understanding of motorcycles, not intentionally, I was just an Indian fan, and I loved the whole culture behind the Indians.”

Howard-Yana on the Bonneville Salt Flats with the 1999 Suzuki Hayabusa drag bike built by Kent Riches. [Howard-Yana Shapiro]
While in Rome, Howard bought, rode and sold a 1971 Ducati 750 GT — and he regrets selling that one. Upon returning to the U.S., where he worked in Chicago as a university professor, Howard maintained his Indians and also added a racing Harley-Davidson WR 45ci  – and several other Harleys – to his collection. It was this connection to Milwaukee-made motorcycles that led Howard to the late Dale Walksler, who had founded a Harley-Davidson dealership in Mt. Vernon, Illinois. Dale, of course, went on to create the Wheels Through Time Museum in Maggie Valley, North Carolina. “In 1977 or 1978, I was looking for an XLCR, and called around to see if anyone was interested in trading one for one of my Harleys, a Sportster XLCH 1000 – nobody was except Dale,” Howard recounts. “I threw it in my pickup and drove down and we met and had the best time with each other, we were just like cousins who’d not met and we both shared a passion. We traded bikes, I loaded up and was about to leave when he said, ‘Wait, I owe you money, your bike is more valuable than the XLCR.’” After that exchange, the two became fast friends and when Dale would pass through Chicago, he’d stop by and visit Howard. “Dale was on the road constantly following leads on all sorts of vintage motorcycles, and sometimes I’d get in the truck with him and we’d go off together.” Soon they were working and sharing stories in Mt. Vernon at Dale’s dealership and at the enormous storage facility he had there.

A Harley-Davidson EL Knucklehead bob-job amongst the Indians. [Paul d’Orléans]
For Howard, it was another kind of education, and he says life was never the same. “Dale would buy something and there’d be something else there,” Howard says. “He’d say to me, ‘You should buy that.’ So, I’d buy whatever it was without really understanding completely what I was getting into. We weren’t really competing in the stuff we were buying – and all of a sudden, I had a number of ‘30s and ‘40s Harleys in the collection as well.” While he appreciated the early American machines, it wasn’t soon after that Howard’s interest was piqued by a Japanese superbike. Sitting at a Chicago intersection while commuting to teach at university, a motorcyclist rode up aboard a first-year 1982 Suzuki Katana. “Another epiphany,” Howard says, “after seeing the Katana, I just went ‘Oh, wow.’” He knew some of the Harley-Davidsons he’d acquired were valuable, but every once in a while, he’d sell one to purchase two more modern Japanese or Italian machines. In this way, a rather significant collection of motorcycles began to fill Howard’s space, including a 4-cylinder Indian in the living room and a couple of other Indians in the house while an oversized 4-car garage held the rest.

Any color you like…postwar Indian Chiefs and H-D Knuckleheads came in a variety of colors. [Paul d’Orléans]
Relationships with significant people involved in the Antique Motorcycle Club of America — including Dr. John “Doc” Patt, who joined the AMCA in 1960, six years after its formation in 1954 and who later became the club’s president, chief judge and director — were fostered when Howard attended his first Chief Blackhawk Chapter meeting of the AMCA. “I met these giants, and I really do mean giants – they were professional people, they were farmers, engineers, doctors – who had a love for early American motorcycles, and the passion was so incredible,” Howard explains. “And Doc Patt told me I needed to join the group and I turned over my money that day. All of a sudden, I was exposed, and I use this word sincerely, to geniuses who were keeping these bikes alive.” Howard became totally immersed in the hobby and followed with interest the goings-on of the various clubs in Chicago focused on British bikes, including Vincent owners, as well as BMW enthusiasts. “It was just an explosion of curiosity,” Howard says, “and I traded, bought, and sold, and was picking up things I liked, including a Katana.”

Howard-Yana with his wife Nancy and a pumped up Buell at Bonneville. [Howard-Yana Shapiro]
And Howard was a keen rider. When invited to lecture, he’d often point his fully faired BMW R1000RS in whichever direction he was headed, and ride, sometimes travelling more than 1,000 miles. All this time, Howard’s thinking about motorcycles, and the era of machines he appreciated, kept evolving. After establishing his own genetics firm, Seeds of Change in northern New Mexico, Howard became even more enamored with Japanese superbikes of the 1980s and 90s. After his firm was bought out by Mars, Incorporated – well-known chocolate manufacturer — Howard became Chief Agricultural Officer at Mars and was moved to Davis, California where he became associated with UC Davis. “Suddenly, I had more cash to work with and in California, I was in used superbike heaven,” Howard says. European motorcycle magazines, which he began reading in the late 1980s, were much more articulate about superbikes and that specific genre of machine, he says, than many American motorcycle publications. He began to make a list of bikes to add to the collection, including a first year Honda CBR900. That wasn’t the only one. There were Yamahas,  Suzukis and Kawasakis; Ducatis and Moto Guzzis. Again, he’d occasionally sell a vintage American machine to fund the purchase of two or three superbikes. “One day, I woke up and realized I had 30 Ducatis, probably that many Moto Guzzis, and 25 Buells and 40 Japanese superbikes, and I realized I really did have a collection,” Howard says.

Jerry Kaplan assists with a tour of the handlebar-to-handlebar collection of early American and Italian touring machines. [Paul d’Orléans]
Looking after the collection became a task handled by Dixon, California-based father and son team Blake and Daniel Lawson of 1Up Motorsports. “I had a superbike mechanic in my world at that point,” Howard says. “He took such great care, and he and Daniel became my go-to persons for work. I really had an extension of my life with these kinds of people that I became familiar with, including other people in the area who were also collecting bikes and we started having a camaraderie of little groups within bigger groups within bigger groups within specialized groups – there are all kinds of interests here. People start to know what you’re looking for and it’s taken me to incredible people who are illuminating in what they do for a living and their passion for motorcycles.” During the early Covid years, interest in Japanese superbikes was increasing in popularity and values were on the rise. Howard opted to whittle down some of his impressive collection, offering 15 of his machines for sale at the 2021 Mecum Las Vegas auction and again in 2022, selling Aprilias, Japanese superbikes and some BMWs. He did this to focus on MV Agustas, Moto Guzzis, Buells and Ducatis. Not all of the Japanese machines were sold, however, and Howard kept the ones that were most important to him, including examples of a Honda VFR750R RC30, RVF750 RC45 and RVT1000R RC51 and Yamaha FZR750R OW01 and YZF-R7 OW02, among a handful of others. But with that paring down, Howard says it’s the first time in their life there haven’t been motorcycles displayed in the bedroom.

Keeping the mice out of the seats..a friendly helper in Howard-Yana’s garage. [Paul d’Orléans]
When Howard turned 70 in 2016, he wanted to return to Bonneville. He’d last been there in 1966 with one of his Indian motorcycles. “We were just riding across the country and heard the Bonneville competition was on and said, ‘Let’s go see’. We had no idea what we were doing, and the rules were very, very different then, so they let us run. I knew that one day, I’d come back.” It only took 40 years for Howard to purchase a 1999 Suzuki Hayabusa drag bike, built by Kent Riches. At Kent’s suggestion, Howard looked up iconic Bonneville tuner, the late Richard Sims. Both the Hayabusa and a Buell were race-prepped for Bonneville. First, the bikes were scrutinized, and thanks to Sims’ attention to detail, they passed with ease. “For the next two hours, they scrutinized me,” Howard says. “’Are you sure you want to do this?’ they asked me. It was physically the toughest thing I’ve ever done in my life. It was taxing, but we did it, thanks to help from Jerry Kaplan, Blake Lawson and Chad Hudson.” For Howard, the experience had nothing to do with speed, nothing to do with cost; it was the fulfillment of one of his motorcycle dreams.

The beauty of vintage Indians (with a Crocker steering damper). [Paul d’Orléans]
Back to balancing the world of seeds and motorcycles, Howard opines, “My agricultural work has largely been in the world of genetics and plant science, and one of the efforts we’re working on is ending chronic hunger and malnutrition in Africa by making 101 different food crops, the backbone of the African food system, more nutritious. To me it’s all patterns and how you look at patterns and how things work. I look at a motorcycle, and I can take a motor apart and I can put it back together, but I’m not that great at it. However, I’ve learned to see patterns in all these sorts of things, genetics and motorcycles, and while they’re not the same, it’s a way to get release one from the other. I hope I have been visionary in my pursuits,” Howard states. As a note about Howard’s scientific pursuits, his more than 50 years of endeavor regarding plants and sustainable agriculture and agroforestry are indeed visionary and vitally important. Howard has worked tirelessly with numerous groups around the globe in an effort to end hunger in underprivileged countries. As earlier mentioned, he’s a Ford Foundation Fellow and Fulbright Scholar and a Distinguished Senior Fellow at the World Agroforestry Centre in Nairobi, Kenya. In 2007, Howard was recognized by the Organic Trade Organization with a lifetime achievement award. According to the UC Davis, the African Orphan Crops Consortium was founded by Howard in 2011 and included bright minds from a number of notable institutions and companies. Working together, genome mapping of traditional African plants was done “to help breeders improve the [crops] nutritional content, productivity and resilience.” Furthermore, in 2011, Howard put together the African Plant Breeding Academy – it’s these efforts to which Howard alluded to in his previous comment about the 101 different African food crops that will improve plant breeding techniques, and as a result, help feed more of the masses.

One of Howard-Yana’s greatest hits: exploring an ancient corn variety in Mexico that fixes nitrogen in the soil as it grows – something no other corn varietal does. Read this article from Smithsonian magazine for more: it’s fascinating stuff, with the potential of drastically reducing the need for chemical fertilizers to grow corn worldwide. [Smithsonian]
In 2018, Howard worked with UC Davis, Mars Inc. and the University of Wisconsin-Madison in identifying corn crops in Oaxaca, Mexico that do not need extensive fertilization due to an ability to secure beneficial nitrogen simply from the air; it’s referred to as nitrogen fixation. Researchers hope the discovery could help other corn varieties grow without heavy applications of fertilizer. Howard co-authored the report, which was published in PLOS Biology. Two years later, a second paper was published with collaborators at UC Davis. This research detailed how rice and other cereals could make their own nitrogen through increasing the production of biofilms; biofilms that enhanced nitrogen conversion from bacteria in the soil. “Nitrogen fixation,” Howard notes, “is the Holy Grail of agriculture. No one thought it was possible – I guess I proved them wrong.” In 2021, Howard was awarded the Lifetime Achievement in Innovation by UC Davis and in 2023 he was awarded The Goldman School of Public Policy Award for Outstanding Contributions to the Field by UC Berkeley. Howard is also a noted author, writing or editing the books Great Moments in Chocolate History, Gardening for the Future of the Earth and Chocolate: History, Culture and Heritage.

The other, world-renowned side of Howard-Yana Shapiro, as a visionary plant researcher focussed on sustainably and naturally increasing the nutrition value of staple foods, and finding species of plants that naturally fix nitrogen in the soil, eliminating the need for fertilizers. [Howard-Yana Shapiro]
Wrapping up, Howard says, “You can only stay in the lab or out in the fields, at that level of scientific inquiry, for so long – it’s just one of the worlds you live in. And then there are the motorcycles — I’ve enjoyed so very much the inquiry into both.” Lastly, he concludes, “Doing science and doing motorcycles has been a fairly complete and fulfilling world. Just the people I’ve met in both cultures, in the science culture and the motorcycle culture, have enriched my life immeasurably and I’m so thankful for that because I never could have planned it.”




Greg Williams is Profiles Editor for The Vintagent. He’s a motorcycle writer and publisher based in Calgary who contributes the Pulp Non-Fiction column to The Antique Motorcycle and regular feature stories to Motorcycle Classics. He is proud to reprint the Second and Seventh Editions of J.B. Nicholson’s Modern Motorcycle Mechanics series. Follow him on IG: @modernmotorcyclemechanics


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