Iowa Public Television


Peace Through Corn

posted on April 16, 2010

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Officials in Iraq this week announced their security forces had disrupted a 9/11-style plot by al-Qaida in to fly hijacked planes into Shiite religious shrines in Iraq.

For Americans, the incident rekindled painful memories of the attacks in Washington and Pennsylvania more than eight years ago.

In the years since the attacks, of course, America has waged a war on terror against a largely invisible enemy. But 50 years ago, that was definitely NOT the case.

Shortly after the world entered the "Nuclear Age," economic competition, political conflict, and escalating military tension took the United States and the Soviet Union to the brink of Armageddon.

But an unlikely diplomat used agriculture to achieve dialog with the head of the Soviet Empire. And as Andrew Batt explains, the Iowa farmer went "toe-to-toe" with Premier Nikita Khrushchev hoping to find "peace through corn."

In the heart of the Cold War…

Americans lived in fear of nuclear annihilation. They were alarmed by a mounting Soviet threat and an uncertain regime lead by Premier Nikita Khrushchev – the successor to brutal World War II-era dictator Joseph Stalin. But American apprehension was not universal.

In the center of the U.S. Corn Belt, a leading businessman was laying the foundation for not only an American success story but an international breakthrough. In the sleepy farm community of Coon Rapids, Iowa, corn farmer Roswell Garst built an agricultural powerhouse in the 1950's.

Roswell Garst: "Hybrid seed is the future of corn. If used we will all have many happy harvests."

Garst embraced technology early on in his quest for more efficient production practices and higher yields. The hard-nosed Iowa grain farmer set himself apart from his colleagues and earned a worldwide reputation.

Victor Lishchenko: "He was a good-willed man. Roswell was a ‘character' as you say in English. He did not like lazy people. He did not like stupid people."

Garst's pursuit of international capitalism brought him to the doorstep of the world's most powerful communist nation – the Soviet Union. Years of correspondence formed an unlikely friendship between the American farmer and Soviet Premier Khrushchev. Their common bond was corn.

Khrushchev's fascination with U.S. agriculture and an open invitation from a Des Moines Register newspaper editorial inspired the gregarious Soviet leader to personally visit America and its "tall-corn state" in 1959.

President Dwight D. Eisenhower: ""The political and social systems of our two systems differ greatly. In our system, the people themselves establish and control the government. You will find that they, like your people, want to live in peace with justice."

WHO's Jack Shelley: "Nobody among the American public would be wise to expect sensational developments out of the conference between Eisenhower and Khrushchev at Camp David. Now that big plane is coming in you can see it beautifully turning around. The Premier of Soviet Russia slowly descending the steps...gesturing as he so often does."

Gov. Herschel Loveless, D-Iowa: "Were known you know as the state of tall corn but we have a lot of tall industries too growing up in the Midwest plains."

WHO: "Here we are once more downtown in the vicinity of the route that will be traveled by the Russian Premier. As you can see there are very large crowds on hand around the Fort Des Moines there. But you can also see that there are some protest signs. There is one that reads: 'The only good communist is a DEAD ONE.'

Sergei Khrushchev: "If you will look at the Soviets you will also find enough people who will say Khrushchev must not go to America. Americans are awful. The best American is a dead American."

Sergei Khrushchev, son of the late Soviet premier, joined his father on the historic 1959 delegation. Sergei remembers the elder Khrushchev's repeated attempts to demonstrate Soviet strength before and after his American visit.

Sergei Khrushchev: "He tried to threaten America to death that we are strong. Saying 'we are producing missiles like sausages' when we had two missiles and I ask him how can you say this? And he said 'I don't care how many missiles we have because we have to show America we are strong.'"

But Khrushchev's chest-thumping diplomacy rung hollow in the field of agricultural technology. The Soviet Premier knew his comrades were far behind their American farming counterparts. The Russian entourage paid visits to a nearby packing plant and the experimental farms at Iowa State University, where antibiotics were cutting-edge swine technology.

ISU News Reel: "While at the experimental farm, Khrushchev remarked ‘If Soviet and American pigs can get along then why can't nations live together."

With great fanfare, the Soviet delegation made the 80 mile trek from Des Moines to Coon Rapids, Iowa and the farm of Roswell Garst.

Under the watchful eyes and cameras of hundreds of journalists, Garst gave Khrushchev a no-nonsense tour of American farming practices.

Tom Vilsack: ""That one-day event, I think, had a profound impact on Premier Khrushchev in terms of his capacity to understand the enormous productivity of American agriculture and he compared that to what Soviet farmers were doing and he realized that they were substantially behind us."

Ambassador Ken Quinn, World Food Prize: ""He was a man that told it like it was and apparently Khrushchev liked that."

Nikita Khrushchev: "You have some great land here. God has clearly helped you."

Roswell Garst: "That's right. Well God is on our side."

Nikita Khrushchev: "No. I think you are wrong."

Roswell Garst: "Tell him we have a saying in America: God helps those that help themselves."

Sergei Khrushchev: "My father asked how many people you have working on the farm. He asks how many sons you have? Garst told him four and they are as strong as I am.' My father looked at him and told him 'On our collective farms we need at least 60 people to farm this.'"

The plain-speaking farmer and the Russian leader made worldwide headlines tromping through the Iowa countryside, pushing aside droves of reporters in their path. At one point, Garst famously threw sileage at a photographer.

Liz Garst, Granddaughter of Roswell Garst: "My Grandfather didn't care for the press. He wanted to show Khrushchev how to grow corn and feed it to cattle. Khrushchev liked the press and wanted to show his people that they needed to embrace Western technology."

Liz Garst, granddaughter of Roswell, was a young girl on that fateful September day in 1959. Fifty years later, Liz and members of the Garst family invited a Russian delegation back to Coon Rapids in a celebration of citizen diplomacy.

Sergei Khrushchev, now an American citizen and Brown University professor, was part of the Russian entourage that included a full agricultural delegation.

Whiterock Managing Director: "Welcome to Whiterock Conservancy. For some of you this is not your first visit."

The Garst farmhouse, now a bed and breakfast on the sprawling Whiterock Conservancy, was the site for remembrance and reflection amongst a new generation of Americans and Russians.

Fifty years in agricultural progress was clearly evident as the Russian leaders toured an Iowa ethanol plant…stood in awe of 30-plus row planters…

…and feasted on, what else, but Iowa sweet corn.

The technological and economic gap between American and Russian agriculture is still present in 2009. But back at the Garst farm, the picture of a long-thawed Cold War appears prominently as the visit's defining image.

After Nikita Khrushchev's visit 50 years ago, the Soviet leader overextended his country on corn planting – an experiment that ultimately failed and contributed to his ouster in the mid-1960's. Garst's diplomatic legacy would later be carried on by his nephew, John Crystal, and Russian Agricultural leader Victor Lishchenko. The Garst Seed brand, long-championed in the heart of the Corn Belt, was ultimately purchased by the Syngenta Corporation. And the town of Coon Rapids still claims Roswell Garst as its most famous citizen.

Sergei Khrushchev: "I thought that he was a great person. He was the first person to drill a hole in the Iron Curtain from the American side."

Liz Garst: "It was an agricultural story above all else. How cool that the first interaction between mortal enemies was coming together on how to eat. What a great story."

Victor Lischenko: "They thought about corn as the most promising kind of grain and this is so. Now world produces roughly 2 billion tons of grain. One-third of this is corn. This means they knew what they had been doing. They had been right in their prognosis."

While the passage of time has dimmed the memory of Garst and Khrushchev's historic visit, the lessons of agricultural diplomacy and what Garst called "Peace through Corn" are readily apparent half a century later.

Tom Vilsack: "5 percent of American farmers produce more than 70 percent of the food and fiber in this country. That's an impressive figure but without technology this wouldn't be possible today which I think is another important lesson we've carried over the last 50 years."


Tags: agriculture Cold War corn farms news Nikita Khrushchev Russia Soviet Union