Q&A: Liz Garst, Garst Seed Company
Her grandfather, Roswell Garst, was a well-known innovator and promoter of fertilizer use, mechanization, and hybrid seeds (he worked with Henry A. Wallace). In the 1950s, his travels took him to the Soviet Union, where he met Nikita Khrushchev, premier of the country.
Roswell extended an invitation to Khrushchev to visit his farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa, to learn about modern agricultural practices. Khrushchev and the Soviet delegation famously made the trip in September 1959; Liz was only 8 years old
Liz Garst has since carved out her path in agriculture as a self-proclaimed soil health crusader who speaks, educates, and leads by example through her family’s farming operations.
SF: When you speak about soil health, what message do you share?
LG: In Iowa, we’ve lost a little bit more than half of our topsoil. We’ve lost half of the carbon in the soil we do have left, so we’re down to a quarter of our filter. We’ve also lost almost 50% of nitrogen or the inherent fertility that was in our soil. Especially due to climate change and the degradation of soil aggregates, we’re projected to lose the rest of our topsoil in 80 to 100 years in the prairie pothole region of Iowa and about 35 years to lose the topsoil in the Loess Hills of Iowa. That’s according to Dr. Hatfield, formerly with the USDA Agricultural Research Service in Iowa. So, we’re going to lose the second half faster than we lost the first half.
I have traveled in eastern Portugal, where the country lost all topsoil in an area that was once the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and it was the most horrifying thing I’ve ever seen. It was a landscape of thistles without villages and agriculture, just roads to the castle tourist center. I saw that as our future unless we do something. That’s my crusade.
SF: How do you implement soil health practices on your family farm?
LG: The earliest business decision I ever made was to invest the profits of a farming operation my granddad set up into more terracing to protect the soil. My family has operated 100% no-till farms since the 1970s. About 15 years ago, we dipped our toes into cover crops, and we’ve been 100% cover crops for several years now.
SF: What advice do you give landowners and tenants for working together to adopt cover crops?
LG: On our family farming entities, we custom farm, sharecrop, and cash-rent some of our land. How to implement cover crops with various lease arrangements is something we know a lot about. Because we own the land, we inform our tenants that they plant cover crops if they want to be our farmers. However, we understand planting cover crops has a learning curve. We support our farmers in testing a portion of the farm first – not everything at once.
We pay 90% of the cover crops cost the first year, 80% in the second year, 70% in the third year, etc. We now split the cost of cover crops 50-50 with our tenants. We feel that we benefit as landlords, and we believe that our tenants benefit, too, from this practice. But the tenants don’t get their benefits for a couple of years, because it takes that long for the changes in soil structure and soil aggregates to show up.
SF: What is Whiterock Conservancy in Iowa?
LG: My sisters and I were blessed with inheriting very beautiful land in Iowa that we wanted to ensure was protected forever for the public to enjoy. With the help of the Iowa Natural Heritage Foundation, we started a new nonprofit and donated our land to it: Whiterock Conservancy, a nonprofit land trust. The Garst family has donated more than 4,000 acres of land out of a total planned gift of 5,500 acres.
Whiterock Conservancy has a three-part mission. The first is natural resource protection and restoration for oak savanna, wetlands, and dry sand prairies. The second is sustainable agriculture through long-term no-till and terraces, cover crops, prairie strips, and rotational grazing. The third part is to welcome people to check out the natural resources and agriculture through a variety of overnight accommodations and a trail system of about 40 miles.
Name: Liz Garst
Title: Garst family business manager
Hometown: Coon Rapids, IA
Education: Bachelor’s at Stanford University, master’s in agricultural economics from Michigan State, MBA from Harvard Business School