The Garst Family, Hybrid Corn, and the Khrushchev Visit

 This iconic photo makes a great album cover Jimmy Smith • Back At The Chicken Shack • 1960 Photo source: Bolshevik Mean Girls

As freshmen at Coe College, my daughter and the great-grandson of Iowa’s most famous farmer met via a Spanish class. All year she had no idea this physics major and Track/Cross Country runner had stronger roots than she does with Iowa corn:

In 1959, at the height of the Cold War, Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev declared that he wanted the Soviet Union to have its own Iowa corn belt. His statement spurred farmer and businessman Roswell Garst to invite Khrushchev to tour his farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa.    Garst hoped to sell modern American agriculture – specifically hybrid seed corn – to the Soviet leader. Impressed with what he saw, Khrushchev bought tons of seed, saving millions of Soviets from extreme hunger and showing support for American agriculture and western technology. John Chrystal, Garst’s nephew, later served for four decades as an informal ambassador of agriculture to the Soviet Union, making numerous trips and contributing to further easing of tensions between the two superpowers.

 Roswell “Bob” Garst (June 13, 1898-Nov 4, 1977) did not complete a degree, but his experiences with college faculty left him “eager to prove himself as good as or superior to academicians.”

See the 1959 video narrated by the familiar, iconic voice of Ed Herlihy here.

An estimated 600 members of the international press descended on the quiet farm to witness the unprecedented visit between an Iowa man of the soil and a controversial head of state – who brought along his wife, Nina, and an entourage of at least 90 people.

Garst  developed hybrid corn seed in 1930 that allowed greater crop yields than open-pollinated corn. He sold hybrid seed to the Soviet Union beginning in 1955 and met Khrushchev there before inviting him to Iowa. Garst’s friendship with Kruschev continued for years and and opened doors to improved US-Soviet communication.

Mariel’s friend Nathan never met his great-grandfather, but he did meet the son of Nikita Krushchev:

On Saturday August 29, 2009, in the yard of the white Garst farmhouse on the edge of Coon Rapids, heirs of the Garst family unveiled a plaque commemorating Khrushchev’s 1959 visit and this month’s listing of the Roswell and Elizabeth Garst Farmstead on the National Register of Historic Places … 

Sergei Khrushchev at the “Ag Progress Days Celebration” in Coon Rapids, Iowa Full story at Farm Progress

Iowa State University Press; 1st ed. (1984)

Garst’s nephew, John Chrystal, also made his mark in Iowa (and world) history:

THE JOHN CHRYSTAL AWARD was established in 2000 in the spirit of John Chrystal’s commitment to enriching Iowa’s relationship with the world and devotion to the idea that everyone is entitled to a sense of dignity and adequate food.   A farmer, banker, public servant and political leader, John Chrystal met with farm leaders in the Soviet Union during the 1950s and 1960s and worked tirelessly to improve relations with the U.S. through cooperation in enhancing food production.

The blood line is full of talent:  “Jane” by Louise Garst McBroom (Mrs. Leland A. McBroom) (1891-1944)  depicts Jane Garst, daughter of Roswell and Elizabeth Garst and niece of the artist. Jane later joined Louise for her Mexico travels and art classes at Frida Kahlo’s home studio.

Liz Garst wrote this family history for guided tours of the Garst Farm in Coon Rapids:

The Garst Family, Hybrid Corn, and the Khrushchev Visit

My name is Liz Garst. I am the granddaughter of Elizabeth and Roswell Garst. To explain another way, my Dad (Steve) has a sweatshirt that says “Bob’s Boy” (Bob was Roswell’s nickname), “Mary’s Husband” (she is the cattle manager), “David’s Brother” (Dave was the one who threw horseshoes on TV), “John’s Cousin”, (that’s John Chrystal, who ran for governor), and finally way down at the bottom, “Some Kid’s Father” (that’s me). And, you should also know that my two great grandfathers were brothers, which means that my parents are second cousins, which means that I am an inbred Garst. This is very shocking, since this story is about hybrids. But, I can’t help it; I’m an inbred.

I’m going to give you a little bit of history about the Garst family, agriculture and the Khrushchev visit today.

My two great grandfathers started the first store in Coon Rapids in 1869. One great grandfather’s sideline hobby was politics; he was Governor of Iowa around 1910. The other one’s hobby was buying and selling land as an investment.

… met Henry Wallace, recently named as “Iowa’s Most Influential Citizen of the Century”…. (he started) Pioneer Hybrid Seed Corn Company in 1926, and in fact start a brand new industry, the Hybrid Seed Industry.

Roswell moved back to the farm in 1929. Wallace and Roswell had become friends in Des Moines, and it was agreed that Roswell would start producing and selling this brand new product, hybrid seed corn, in the Western Corn Belt, which wasn’t very much of a corn belt then, because there wasn’t irrigation yet. It was a pretty small territory and the company had a modest beginning. My grandmother ran a summer camp for city children to pay for the first couple of years of detassling, and they stored the seed on the porch, which is now the back half of the living room.

This company in Coon Rapids contributed two big things to this brand new industry. Wallace did the research, but this company in Coon Rapids was smart enough to employ a man named Ralph Wheeler, a local guy, 5th grade education. He invented almost all of the machinery used in this brand new industry. He was a mechanical genius. And the other thing this company contributed was my grandfather figuring out how to sell hybrid seed corn.

It was not easy to sell hybrid seed corn in 1929. Corn was so cheap they were burning it, but of course, there was a bigger problem in selling hybrid seed corn in 1929 … farmers were not accustomed to paying cash for anything in 1929. Farmers saved their own seed, no cash; the only fertilizer was manure from their own farm animals, no cash; and the only power was draft horses raised on their own farm, no cash. There was no cash in agriculture except maybe they bought salt and nails and maybe took the grain to town to be ground.

Roswell would show up and say, “I have this wonderful new product, only $8 a bag” (he sold it in peck bags) and the farmers would sneer in disbelief, they weren’t going to pay $8 for anything. So his first sales technique was to get them to try it, and the way he did that was to say “OK, don’t pay me $8 in cash. Instead, take this bag of seed, plant it side by side against your open pollinated corn. I will come back in the fall and take half of the increase in yield as my payment.” Well, this product was so good that half of the increase in yield was worth way more than $8, even in 1929. In the fall he would say “Never mind, I won’t hold you to that deal, instead I’ll take your $8 and your order for next year.”

… He was colorful and flamboyant, clever about getting his ideas across. The farm press loved him, and his ideas were extensively covered by the Farm Magazines. In short, he was a pretty well known agricultural innovator before the Khrushchev story starts.

The Khrushchev story starts in 1955, when Khrushchev came to power in the Soviet Union. Stalin had died in office in 1953 and there were a couple of years of confusion, but Khrushchev clearly got the reigns in 1955. He inherited a huge mess in terms of food production. The country had no milk, meat or eggs, and even porridge consumption was heading the wrong way. They had had mass starvation as recently as 1953. The single biggest problem was that Stalin had believed that the way to have a strong country was number 1, a strong military, and number 2, a strong industrial base. Stalin did not just ignore agriculture, he raped it. He took at all the investment capital, and force labored hundreds of thousands into the military and into the factories. One way another, almost 20 million died under Stalin, and most of those were rural people.

Khrushchev had been the head communist in Ukraine, the best agricultural area in the Soviet Union before he became the Premier. As the head guy in Ukraine, he put some resource into agriculture and it paid off big for him. Although he was a mining engineer by education, he had gotten this agriculture experience and when he came into power as the Premier, he believed very strongly, his absolute number one, highest priority was food production. He believed that you had to have a strong food economy to have a strong country. I am sorry, but I require all resort guests to agree with that statement out loud. You have to have a strong food economy to have a strong country, right? Right!

Now most people in this country did not understand how hungry they were. Our government had quite a career over-painting the strength of the Soviet Union to get bigger military budgets. To the extent Americans understood they were hungry, Americans were thrilled. Because of course, we hated their guts in 1955. We assumed that they were going to attack us at any time, that they were very, very dangerous. The Soviets assumed the same thing about us, of course. It was a very tense relationship and most Americans were glad that they were in such bad shape.

Letters from an American Farmer: The Eastern European and Russian Correspondence of Roswell Garst Editors: Richard Lowitt, Harold Lee Northern Illinois University Press; 1 ed. (Feb 1, 1987)

Shortly after Khrushchev came to power, he … said something to the effect that the “United States has good agriculture and the Soviet Union needs an Iowa corn belt”… In response to this comment, Loren Soth, who was then the Editor of the Editorial Page in the Des Moines Register and a good agriculturist, wrote an open letter to Khrushchev in the Des Moines Register … “Dear Mr. Khrushchev, you’re right the United States has good agriculture. In fact, Iowa has the best agriculture in the world. You ought to consider sending a delegation to Iowa to learn how to grow food, so that our two countries can compete economically, instead of by this stupid arms race.”

Soth was expressing a minority viewpoint in this country, but a minority viewpoint that was held by some important opinion leaders in the Midwest, notably Henry Wallace, our most influential citizen of the century. The idea was that we should integrate the Soviet Union into world trade, that we should start trading with them, that we should find ways to deal with them other than building bombs. Of course, this was not a popular idea. It was the main plank of Wallace’s campaign for President in 1948. He was roundly denounced as a commie-sympathizer, if not a communist, and he got only 2.9% of the vote.

To everyone’s amazement, the spy system was good enough that the Soviet spies read the Des Moines Register, read this article, translated it and put it on Khrushchev’s desk within a few days of its publication. Khrushchev picked up the telephone and called the US State Department and accepted the invitation to send a delegation to Iowa. The State Department, of course, had no idea what he was talking about, since they didn’t read the Des Moines Register, and when they understood what he was talking about, they didn’t much like it. Our State Department was the leader of the idea that it was good that they were starving to death. But there was some curiosity and some negotiations and it was finally agreed that a delegation could come as long as it was only technical people, no politicians, and as long as the plane went from Moscow to Des Moines, it never got near Washington D.C. Nobody from our Federal Government had anything to do with it.

… I’m going to make a long, complicated story shorter than it actually happened … Khrushchev introduced his wife to my grandparents. Her name was Nina Khrushchev and she and my grandmother hit it off like peas in a pod. Mrs. Khrushchev was a college graduate and had been an English teacher. The two women were considerably more educated than their husbands. They were both ladies who read newspapers and had big world views. They were very much ladies, they knew their manners, they knew how to be polite and gracious and they were both a little bit embarrassed by their crude husbands.

It was actually my grandmother who invited the Khrushchevs to come here. In a good Midwest farm wife way, I’m sure on autopilot; (she would have said this ten thousand times in her life) “It’s been so nice to meet you and your family. Your hospitality has been so warm, won’t you please come and visit us sometime. We would love to entertain you in our home and have you meet our family.” My grandmother would have said this to lots of people in her life, because she was a lady.

To everyone’s amazement, not too much later, Khrushchev contacted the U.S. State Department and said he wanted to come to the United States. He wanted to visit Disney Land, the Roswell Garst Farm and the United Nations. 

… The Khrushchevs did go to California and were very rudely treated there. It was still the middle of the Cold War and the Governor of California was into scoring brownie points with his anti-communist voters by being vicious to Khrushchev. Really rude … At the last moment, he wasn’t allowed to go to Disney Land, for security reasons. They could have thought of that well before he actually showed up. They really slammed him around.

In Iowa, we treated him very nicely. The Governor and opinion leaders understood the importance of this, so he got some red carpet treatment here in Iowa. He spent two days here. 

… All good communists knew as a fact that any idea coming from a capitalist was not only evil, but also stupid. Just like we knew that any idea coming from a communist was not only evil, but also stupid. And furthermore, any good communist would be politically terrified to be seen talking to a known capitalist … We think the real reason he came here was to send the message to his own people that it was OK for a good communist to look to the West for technology, particularly agricultural technology.

Nobody ever disputed that Khrushchev was a good communist. He believed in that system with his heart and soul. He was a real patriot, very loyal to his country. No one ever doubted that about him, so he could get away with sending this message. He had the visit to this farm made into books, magazines and movies and taught to every school child in the Soviet Union for twenty years after the visit. Garst was a household name in the Soviet Union during the 1960’s and 1970’s. It is a good farm, but not that good. We were being used as a message bearer, that it is OK to look to the West for agriculture technology.

My grandfather had a couple of motives. During this era he was frequently and loudly denounced as a “commie sympathizer” but the truth was that he was not a “commie sympathizer”. To the contrary, he was such a capitalist that he would even sell to the “dirty dog communists”. One of his main motives in this whole thing was to make money, to make a profit. He was proud of that; he had no problem with being a capitalist. His brother, the same guy who had been the fertilizer czar, had written a book called No Need for Hunger. There was a long chapter in there about Roswell, as an example that the profit motive is pretty wonderful because you can understand it and therefore can trust it. The people who are motivated by profit are the people who drive innovation and technology and make the world a better place. Roswell was trying to make money and was very proud of that.

The second motive of Roswell was that he agreed with his mentor Wallace and with Adlai Stevenson and Loren Soth that the arms race was nuts. Roswell hated the arms race and felt that we should be trading with these people, integrating them into the world economy. Roswell’s particular take on this issue was “hungry people are dangerous people”. This is why I want you to have a big lunch. Eat lots, OK? … The world would remain essentially destabilized as long as there was somebody out there trying to get food no matter what.

… He did sell quite a bit of seed to the Soviet Union, but that was about offset by cancellation of U.S. farmers who refused to do business with an alleged commie sympathizer. 

… Nobody knows how many reporters showed up on the farm that morning, but estimates range between 1,500 and 3,000 reporters. As in, right outside this door. They were unbelievable, awful. They were crushing the roof of the silo, wading through the cattle lots, breaking into this house to use the telephone and trampling our friends and neighbors. As my Grandmother said, they were “really much worse than the flies”. They were bad.

One of the more famous incidents of the day was in the afternoon, when my Grandfather was starting to lose his cool regarding these reporters because they were crowding, crowding, crowding, crowding and couldn’t be kept back…

My grandfather went back to the Soviet Union a couple more times and as his health failed, my uncle John Chrystal (actually my first cousin once removed, but I always called him uncle) went. John went a total of 60 times in his life as an advisor to the Soviet Union on food production. The commercial purpose fell by the wayside and my family became very interested in that country get it in gear.

… The Soviet Union has made huge progress in food production since 1955. They use hybrids, they use machinery, they use fertilizer and they are growing corn where it is adapted. They are not as good as we are in corn production, but they are not bad. The biggest problem is that the whole country is much further north and much drier than our country. They just don’t have the natural environment for this kind of production. And the management isn’t as good. But, they’re doing pretty good in production agriculture.

… Capitalism is particularly good at sending messages to the economy, through price signals, that it is time to move product in form, time and place. Distribution is a true strength of capitalism. And, it is a real weakness of communism. 

Elizabeth “Liz” Garst
–BA in English Literature from Stanford
–MS in Agricultural Economics from Michigan State
–MBA with emphasis in Agribusiness from Harvard
–Peace Corp volunteer in Agricultural Development in Colombia
— enjoys gardening, hunting and hosting foreign guests

“The best hope for world peace is to alleviate hunger” – University of Iowa Library

… In the 1960s Garst continued to innovate… He hoped to travel to the People’s Republic of China the way he had to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but Chinese and U.S. officials could not agree on terms. Garst sent his sons to South America and Central America to explore commercial and economic development projects.

Garst continued his involvement with Garst and Thomas Company in the 1970s. He was a spokesperson for agricultural innovation at home and abroad. He gave presentations to civic and professional groups and conducted tours of the family farm. At age 79, Garst died of a heart attack.

The Garst Papers are located in Special Collections, Iowa State University Library, Ames.

Mary Garst (1928 – 2014) donated her brain to Harvard’s NAMI (National Association of Mental Illness) project for schizophrenia research

Mary, daughter of Warren, Jr. and Eleanor (Hubbard) Garst … she graduated Magna Cum Laude from Carleton College in Minnesota where she later was awarded an honorary doctorate.

…  first female president of any state cattlemen’s organization

… an ardent and active Democrat.

… buying the bank where her father had been CEO. She guided the bank and its charitable foundation’s support of the community and community projects.

… s ensured that all Coon Rapids kids (current and future), no matter their income level, have access to a summer pool pass.

… inducted into the Iowa Women’s Hall of Fame in 1981 and was honored to have a chapter in Louise Noun’s book “More Strong Minded Women”.

the emergence of feminism in Iowa in the late 1960s – early 1970s in the voices of women who launched that revolution 

After the death of her husband in 2004, Mary, her five daughters and her sister-in-law created a nonprofit land trust Whiterock Conservancy to protect 5,000 acres of the Middle Raccoon River valley landscape. This deed transfer is probably the largest private land gift ever made in the state. Whiterock is restoring the landscape back to native oak savanna and prairie; modeling sustainable ag practices; hosting family reunions, event and nature programming; and building a world class backcountry trail system for mountain-bikers, marathoners and equestrians. Mary insisted on low-powered electric carts for the elderly and parents of small children.

Mary died peacefully at her home Sunday, October, 19, 2014, deep in the woods she and her family loved south east of Coon Rapids several days after she chose to stop taking her heart medications.

Whiterock Conservancy, a 5,500 acre non-profit land trust near Coon Rapids formed with donations from the Garst family 

Garst vision emerges in big trail break $4.8 million backcountry trails system
By DOUGLAS BURNS, Staff Writer   April 23, 2014

The $4.8 million, 40-mile trails system will include 40 miles of trails open to hiking, running and walking, 16 miles of trails for mountain biking, 7 miles for horses and 12 miles of double-tracked trails available for use by all users, including the mobility challenged.

As it stands, Whiterock pulls about 5,000 visitors annually, but the figure is estimated to jump to 25,000 or more, fed largely through the regional draw of the mountain-biking system.

The project will include five RV campsites in the new Horse Campground to be located by Oakridge Farmhouse; four backcountry hike-in/bike-in campsites and two wildlife viewing stands/blinds.

The backcountry trail will be heavy on education. Experts in geology and archaeology and river hydrology were consulted to map out the trails route so users get the best experiences, Elizabeth Garst said.

The mountain-biking trails will have sections for beginners and a skilled loop with jumps and crossings. 

1/64 CUSTOM Ford F350 Garst seed corn truck with seed corn pallet ERTL farm toy

My own history with seed corn goes back to the family farm (my dad has actually planted Garst seed but he used to be a dealer for Acco seed). My sisters and I detasseled.

TeenagersDetasseling Corn in Fields near New Ulm, Minnesota

Up at 4 a.m., drive to town to catch the bus,  ride to Grundy Center and other faraway fields, get soaked with dew and caked with corn pollen all morning, feel it steaming all afternoon, work 10 – 12 hours a day reaching up to pull tassels two feet above your ahead…   no wonder  Seed producer finding it difficult to find teens to detassel during summer but Corn detasseling gives a kernel of hope to next year’s crop – the Bill Olmsted photo above shows a teenage girl in raincoat to keep dry from the still damp corn stalks while reaching for a corn tassle on a “female” plant. The tassles on the plants are pulled so that the taller “male” plants will fertilize the females creating a hybrid seed.

The pollinating row’s pollen will blow over onto the silks. You have to time it right: when the tassels get ready to shed, the silks are ready to receive the pollen.

My children have never witnessed this Midwest phenomenon. Given their “roots” it may be time they try it at least once. They didn’t even read the biography (hardcover!) I bought, years ago, of another famous Iowa farmer and seed developer:

Norman Borlaug’s scientific mind and hard work saved millions of people around the world from starvation. Many say that no single person did as much as the Cresco native to alleviate hunger. He won the 1970 Nobel Peace Prize for his efforts, which continued until his death in 2009 from complications of cancer. A self-described “corn-fed, country-bred Iowa boy,” Borlaug was called “the Father of the Green Revolution” for his work developing high-yielding strains of wheat that were credited with staving off the starvation of millions of people in Pakistan and India in the 1960s.

Back to Mariel’s world: I wish I’d kept those vintage issues of Wallaces Farmer I grew up with (Henry Wallace having been a friend of the man whose great-grandson met my daughter):

Mariel’s grandma still uses an antique tiller (and a wringer washing machine) and her aunt uses iPhone photos to create greeting cards:


Her brother Miles enjoys running wild through the country when visiting Gma & Gpa: 

My sister in our dad’s field: 

And that’s about enough corn for one day!

About carolkean

novelist, reviewer, editor, book critic for Liberty Island and Perihelion Science Fiction; native prairie/guerilla gardener; champion of liberty, indie authors & underdogs; one of the top two reviewers in Editors &Preditors Poll 2015; Amazon Vine, NetGalley Top Reviewer
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9 Responses to The Garst Family, Hybrid Corn, and the Khrushchev Visit

  1. Nice post, Carol. I, too, detasseled im my youth – the toughest job I ever did, but character building for sure. I never met Mr. K. – my mom made me go to school that day. I was so disappointed as the 3 oldest cousins were featured heavily by the media. As the 4th oldest, I missed out. Nathan is my son – he’s loving Coe.

    Liked by 1 person

    • carolkean says:

      Sallee, great to hear from you! A month later, I discover your message. Would you be able to help Jenna and Twait ( – see her comment 2015/11/23 at 10:14 pm) with their 8th-grade project at Hudson Community School? I’ve met Nathan only once, but he made a lasting impression, and not just because of your family’s vast legacy. I love the Women’s Voices book. You come from a long line of great women and men!


    • carolkean says:

      Sallee, I am horrified that you had to attend school rather than meet the historic visitor Mr K!! I’m that irresponsible mom who’d fake a “home sick” note rather than have my child miss out on something that’s more educational than a day in school. Fortunately, the first two have graduated college in spite of their mom’s failure to run a tight ship, and Mariel is surviving a tough pre-med course of study. Glad to hear Nathan is enjoying Physics at Coe! He picked the right college for that major. One almnna has worked with the CERN team on the super collider. Eeep!! TOO COOL


  2. Tom Tebo says:

    I Think I just bought a Louise Garst McBroom painting in an estate.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I sure would love to see a photo of that as would my many related cousins. There are several Louise Garst McBroom paintings floating around the Garst family – could you maybe take a pic of it and send it to me via email?

      Liked by 1 person

      • carolkean says:

        Tom Tebo, I can’t find you online to make sure you see Sallee’s message. Eep! Sallee, the only Garst Seed item I own is that little model pick-up truck (off ebay). The album cover rocks. All those vintage calendars and other items are great. You must have a family museum of all this?


  3. Jenna says:

    Hi my name is Jenna and Twait and I go to Hudson community school. I am in eighth grade and I am researching Roswell Garst for an NHD. I was wondering if you have any information or artifacts that would be helpful for research. Thank you

    Liked by 1 person

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