The world focused on a farm outside Coon Rapids, Iowa, on September 23, 1959. Nikita Khrushchev, the premier of the Soviet Union and its Community Party, was visiting the farm of hybrid corn salesman Roswell Garst to learn more about American agriculture production. It was a period of heightened tension between the U.S. and Soviet Union with fears of nuclear war always in the background. The “Iron Curtain” across Eastern Europe and the Berlin Wall restricted Western access to Soviet-dominated countries. In 1956, Khrushchev in a speech to ambassadors from Western nation and speaking on behalf of the world communism predicted that “we will bury you.” The In October of 1957, the Soviets had successfully launched Sputnik, the first successful orbiting satellite, demonstrating not only their capacity for a space program but long-range missiles capable of delivering nuclear warheads. In the summer preceding Khrushchev’s visit to Iowa, the Soviet premier had debated Vice President Richard Nixon over the superiority of communism and capitalism, the famous “Kitchen Debate”, when Nixon hosted Khrushchev at an American cultural exhibit in Moscow. Tensions were high.
One of Khrushchev’s priorities was the expansion of Soviet agriculture, increasing production and decreasing dependence on the importation of food. He was particularly focused on increasing Soviety production of corn and sent a delegation to the U.S. to study American corn production. Garst managed to visit the Soviet representatives and gained permission to visit the Soviet Union to discuss the sale there of his hybrid varieties. When he met with Khrushchev, the two men hit it off sharing their mutual interest in agriculture. When Khrushchev announced his plans to visit the U.S., the first Soviet leader ever to set foot in the Western Hemisphere, he included Garst’s farm on his two-week itinerary.
Flying in to the Des Moines airport on September 23, the Soviet leader was hosted at a dinner by the Iowa governor Hershel Loveless and Des Moines mayor Charles Iles. A United Press International (UPI) story at the time reported his remarks in his after-dinner speech which was “brief and unmarked by humor.” Taking issue with the way American press described Soviet efforts to improve their farming output as “a kind of Soviet economic menace,” Khrushchev asked “but the question is what kind of menace and who can our agricultural production hurt….Hardly anyone can content that the consumption of more butter and meat will make our people more aggressive.”
The next day his motorcade headed west from Des Moines to the Garst Farm near Coon Rapids. All along the way, crowds lined the roads to catch a glimpse of the leader of the communist world and America’s greatest enemy. At the farm, flanked by an army of reporters, Garst took Khrushchev on a tour of the extensive hybrid corn fields and the farm machinery the farm used to plant and harvest it. The two men sparred through a translator in a good natured way about newly developed Soviet hybrids.
Khrushchev’s son Sergei recalled later that his father had been amazed that Garst’s extensive operation was managed by Roswell and his son and just a few farm employees. Sergei said that a comparable Soviet farm would have required as many as 60 workers.
American historian William Taubman described the relationship between the two men. “Not only did Khrushchev learn much from Garst about growing corn, he liked him no end as a person…Both men loved to gab. Khrushchev relished Garst’s cantankerousness, especially when it justified his own, such as when Garst bawled out Soviet farmers for sowing corn without fertilizing the soil.”
From there, Khrushchev’s entourage traveled to Ames to look over the Swine Research Center of Iowa State University. One of the Soviets’ goals was to develop the corn-hogs combination that the U.S. had achieved in its Corn Belt. Khrushchev later remarked to journalists that the visit to Iowa was "the most relaxed" of his visit to the U.S.
Farm diplomacy between the two superpowers continued after the visit and even after Khrushchev’s ouster as the Soviet leader in 1964. Roswell Garst’s nephew, Iowa banker John Crystal, continued contacts with agriculture counterparts. According to a summary of Crystal’s papers in the Iowa State University Archives, “Chrystal's ties to the Soviet Union began in 1958 when he met Nikita Khrushchev during the Soviet premier's visit to Iowa and the Garst family farm. In 1960 and 1963 Chrystal and Roswell Garst traveled together to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe as citizen ambassadors and agricultural advisors. In 1972, Garst and Chrystal hosted another Russian delegation to Iowa, this time to Coon Rapids. Between 1960 and 1989, Chrystal was invited repeatedly to visit the Soviet Union to offer advice about agriculture. He visited approximately sixteen times and led efforts to help modernize farming and agricultural infrastructure systems in Russia, Georgia, and Ukraine and to improve trade relations between those countries and the United States.”
For Further Reading:
John Chrystal Archives at Iowa State University http://findingaids.lib.iastate.edu/spcl/manuscripts/MS422.html
“Khrushchev Visits Iowa Cornfields”
Nikita Khrushchev “Biography” https://www.biography.com/political-figure/nikita-khrushchev