Corn Diplomacy and the Cold War

The Year: 1959. The place: Iowa.

It’s the height of the Cold War, and Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev, on an official visit to the United States, makes a foray into corn country – and the farm of Roswell Garst.

Soviet Premier Nikita Khruschev celebrates the mighty corn cob while Roswell Garst looks on.

Khrushchev celebrates the mighty corn cob while Roswell Garst looks on.

With food shortages often plaguing the massive Soviet population, Khruschev had become obsessed with the idea of creating a Midwest-style “corn belt” on the Russian steppes. Corn could solve the Soviet Union’s persistent food insecurity, Khruschev thought, and in the mid-1950s he’d sent Soviet agriculturalists to study American farming techniques and figure out how to do it. As Khruschev’s son Sergei explained: “The goal of my father was to improve the life of the Soviet people. So his first priority was to increase food production,” making agriculture “one of his main priorities at the time.”


Soviet poster promoting corn production, c1956.

Enter Roswell Garst: an Iowa farmer determined to get his hybrid corn seeds onto the Soviet delegation’s radar. So determined, in fact, that he effectively “kidnapped” the Soviet agricultural delegation visiting Iowa State University, Garst’s granddaughter Liz said, so they could see his farm’s productivity. The delegation was impressed, and Garst was soon on his way to the Soviet Union for meetings with officials, and with Khrushchev himself.  The two hit it off, their personal rapport making an unlikely crack in the Iron Curtain.


Touring Garst’s farm.

So when Khruschev stepped onto American soil in September 1959, he wanted to visit the friend who was helping make his dream of a Russian Corn-belt into a reality. With a media circus in tow, the Soviet premier lunched at Garst’s farm – but only, Liz Garst recalled, after both American and Soviet food tasters had ensured the meal wasn’t poisoned! And when Garst thought the journalists were getting too close for comfort during a tour of his farm, he decided to give them a direct lesson in agricultural products – pelting them with corn husks, which Khrushchev seemed to appreciate!


Garst tells the media what he thinks of their coverage.

In the end, Khrushchev’s corn-belt dream would end up more of a nightmare. Russian farmers started planting corn everywhere, he later reflected, and they didn’t always implement Garst’s methods. When Siberian farmers tried their hand at corn farming, the result was an unsurprising failure. Some collective farms elsewhere produced bumper crops, but then lacked the tools to harvest them. Over time, the corn crop did start to improve in quality and yield, but the more immediate result was a political disaster for the Soviet premier – who would be ousted from office in 1964. As Khrushchev noted in his memoir: “Corn was discredited, and so was I.”

Listen to our interview with Liz Garst and Sergei Khruschev, and hear more from our farm show.

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