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Citizen diplomacy through corn

By Staff | Sep 11, 2009

Sergei Khrushchev shared his memories of his father's historic visit to Iowa in 1959.

COON RAPIDS – When 31 Russian farmers and heads of state visited Coon Rapids recently to honor the 50th anniversary of Nikita Khrushchev’s trip to Iowa, one of the most memorable moments occurred far from the highly publicized conferences and gala dinners in Des Moines.

“I escorted the group to the Coon Rapids cemetery, and it was touching to see them place flowers at my grandparents’ graves,” said Liz Garst, a granddaughter of Roswell Garst, a plain-spoken, no-nonsense promoter of hybrid seed corn who invited Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev to tour his Coon Rapids farm.

It’s hard to overstate the global impact of Khrushchev’s visit on Sept. 23, 1959, a day that transfixed Iowa and the world. The tour showcased agriculture’s expanding productivity in post-World War II America, driven by plant breeding and rapid advances in farm equipment technology.

Khrushchev’s visit to westcentral Iowa came about because Garst, a fervent capitalist who believed that hungry people are dangerous people, recognized that the Soviets needed to raise more corn, a belief shared by the Soviet premier.

Although Garst’s willingness to trade with America’s avowed enemy cost him some friends and customers, Khrushchev’s visit to rural Iowa helped to thaw the escalating Cold War. That assessment came from Sergei Khrushchev, son of the former Soviet leader, who is a naturalized American citizen and professor at Brown University and who spoke at the 50th anniversary celebration in Coon Rapids.

Hundreds of people thronged the streets of Coon Rapids in late August during the 50th anniversary celebration of Nikita Khrushchev's visit to Iowa in 1959. Activities included speeches, an agricultural progress parade and a silage-throwing contest.

“You can’t start a journey without taking the first step, and Roswell Garst was one of the first Americans to take that first step,” said Segei Khrushchev.

Race to raise more corn

Nikita Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union in 1955, two year’s after Joseph Stalin’s death. During this period, agriculture in the Soviet Union suffered greatly from Stalin’s emphasis on Soviet military power and industrialization, which both came at the expense of food production.

“People want to be fed, every day, every week, every month, every year,” said Wes Jackson, president of the Land Institute, who spoke at the Aug. 29 ceremony marking the Garst Farm’s entry into the National Register of Historic Places. “This need must have been most poignant for Mr. Khrushchev, since the Siege of Leningrad and the resultant starvation, sickness and death that lasted from August 1941 until January 1944 occurred only 15 years before the Iowa meeting.”

Feeding the nation’s people remained a challenge for the Soviet Union when Khrushchev suggested that his nation needed an Iowa Corn Belt. The world press picked up the remark and reported it extensively, because it marked the first time a Soviet leader had said anything good about the United States since the Cold War began in 1946.

An Iowa newspaper’s editorial writer responded with an editorial urging the Soviet Union to compete in a race to raise the most corn, instead of a race to produce the most bombs. Soth was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for the editorial, and the Kremlin took note, said Jerry Perkins, a former ag reporter for a statewide Iowa newspaper.

This paved the way for farm exchanges between the United States and the Soviet Union, including Roswell Garst’s first trip to the Soviet Union in 1955.

It culminated with Khrushchev’s acceptance of Garst’s invitation to visit Iowa.

An army of reporters covered Khrushchev’s every move when he spent a full day at the Garst farm on his 1959 trip to the Midwest, which also included tours of Iowa State University, the Deere & Co. plant in Ankeny and Bookey Packing’s meat processing plant in Des Moines. For Garst and Khrushchev, a capitalist and a communist drawn together by food and farming, the event offered a rare opportunity to discuss everything from soils to seeds.

“The two men were really quite alike,” Liz Garst recalls in an oral history she tells visitors to the Garst farm. “They were both big idea men who were absolutely passionate about agriculture and food production.”

Learning from the past

For the Russians who came to Iowa this summer to mark the 50th anniversary of Khrushchev’s historic trip, it was remarkable to see the changes that have occurred in Iowa agriculture. The dignitaries toured a number of central Iowa ag businesses, including Pioneer Hi-Bred in Johnston, Van Wall Equipment in Perry, the Ron Heck farm near Perry and the Craig Christensen hog farm near Ogden.

“It’s impressive to see the tremendous advances that American agriculture has reached in the past 50 years,” said Dr. Victor Lishchenko, director of the Center for International Agribusiness, who noted that the transition from a central planning system to capitalism has been very difficult for Russia. “Today we should continue to cooperate, especially in the area of agriculture. We have a lot to achieve as we increase ag output and make it economically feasible.”

While Khrushchev failed to replicate America’s ever-increasing agricultural production, his willingness 50 years ago to look to the West for ag technology left a legacy that hasn’t been forgotten.

“Khrushchev’s visit to Iowa had a major impact on feeding the world, and we need partnerships like this today to feed a world that’s increasingly food insecure,” said Michael Michener, of New London, a native Iowan and administrator of the U.S. Foreign Agricultural Service. “Food security is more than alleviating hunger, because it’s inextricably tied to economic security, which is tied to national security.”

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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