Prove your humanity

This year marks the 50th anniversary of Soviet premier Nikita Khrushchev’s historic visit to Garst’s farm in Coon Rapids. The actual event fell on September 23. Iowans commemorated it last weekend with a conference in Des Moines on “Feeding a Hungry World.” The list of attendees included Rachel Garst (the granddaughter of Roswell) and Sergei Khrushchev (the son of Nikita, and a professor at Brown University). Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack and Senator Charles Grassley also took part.

“You know,” Garst told Khrushchev, “we two farmers could settle the problems of the world faster than diplomats.”

Unfortunately, they didn’t end the Cold War. It plodded along for another three decades. Yet their meeting made a big impact–and it holds lessons for the citizen diplomats of our own time.

When I visited Ukraine on an exchange program in the early 1990s, the local farmers would hear that I was from Iowa and immediately they would ask about Garst. Did I know him? (Only by reputation.) Was my farm near his? (It’s about 40 or 50 miles away.) Is it true that money grows on trees in America? (Not that I’ve seen.)

Garst was a larger-than-life figure, a fervent believer in the power of hybrid corn to feed the world. Like so many top salesmen, he was a colorful character–and he owned “a massive head that looked like one of the statues found on Easter Island,” according to Peter Carlson, author of “K Blows Top,” a recent book on Khrushchev’s 12-day trip across America.

Garst thought that relations between the United States and the Soviet Union would improve if only these suspicious rivals could do business together. American farmers produced more food than their countrymen could eat. The Russians, on the other hand, routinely imported food and occasionally faced famine.

In Garst’s vision, Americans would sell what they grow, the Soviets would buy what they need, and everyone would enjoy a peace dividend. “It would be dangerous for the world to have a Russia that is both hungry and has the H-bomb,” said Garst. “I never saw a well-fed, contented man who was really dangerous.”

In the 1950s, Garst made several trips to the Soviet Union. In Moscow, he met privately with Khrushchev, who shared a background in agriculture. The behavior of the Soviets could frustrate Garst–he deplored their invasion of Hungary in 1956, for example–but he always returned to his belief in “peace through corn.”

As Khrushchev prepared his journey to the United States in 1959, he reportedly asked to meet with only two Americans: President Eisenhower and Roswell Garst. “I have known Mr. Garst for years,” said Khrushchev. “Let us exchange experiences. This will be useful to our countries.”

Khrushchev’s formal itinerary included big cities on the coasts, plus a detour through Des Moines and Coon Rapids. The trip to the Garst farm became a media circus. There’s a famous picture of Garst flinging mud at reporters who tried to follow the men the way paparazzi stalk movie stars.

What did Khrushchev learn in Coon Rapids? It’s hard to know for sure, but also easy to think that he was impressed by the capitalist success of American agriculture. It produced bumper crops, as opposed to Communism’s bounty of underproduction and starvation.

It’s unlikely that we’ll ever see anything like Khrushchev’s tour again. The closest thing would be a visit from North Korean dictator Kim Jong-il–another Communist who should do more to let his suffering people feed themselves.

But if he decides to come, I’m willing put him up at my house.

I’ve acted as a citizen diplomat before. When the United States and Vietnam were normalizing relations, I hosted a Vietnamese official who was on his way to Washington. He had requested to stay at a Midwestern farmhouse–and wound up in my home.

All over the world, people associate the American heartland with food security. We should teach them what we can, and assume a leadership role in fostering goodwill, just as Garst did a generation ago.

Exchanges between farmers make a lot of sense. As the United States tries to rebuild Afghanistan and Iraq, we’d be wise to share American agricultural know-how with these war-torn nations. In this spirit, Truth About Trade and Technology continues to sponsor the Global Farmer-to-Farmer Roundtable, an annual forum that invites growers from around the world to share their insights and ideas.

The Cold War is over. Khrushchev and Garst are long dead. Yet feeding the world remains a significant challenge–and “peace through corn” remains an inspired slogan.

Bill Horan grows corn, soybeans and grains in Northwest Iowa. This fourth generation family farm has been involved in specialty crop production and identity preservation for over 20 years. Mr. Horan was appointed to the USDA Renewable Energy Committee and serves as a Truth About Trade & Technology Board member.