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Who are America’s best diplomats? Farmers!

Visits by Xi Jinping and Nikita Khrushchev to Iowa farms reflect agriculture’s role in building peace.

A long list of famous names with ties to American farmland have changed the course of history. Norman Borlaug takes top honors in the eyes of many. Winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Borlaug is credited with saving more than a billion lives thanks to the hardier strains of wheat he developed and shared. 

The impact of visits with Iowa farmers by a former leader of the Soviet Union and the current leader of the People’s Republic of China is not easy to quantify. Both leaders forged friendships with the farmers and families who hosted them. Which begs the question: Are America’s farmers the nation’s best diplomats?

In the words of Ambassador Kenneth Quinn, president emeritus of the World Food Prize Foundation, “The role of agriculture in building peace, promoting peace, is one of the most incredible strengths of that noble profession. And it’s one of the essential elements of Iowa’s agricultural and humanitarian heritage.”

Xi Jinping

In January at the 2021 Land Investment Expo, I interviewed Terry Branstad, who served 22 years as Iowa’s governor and then was ambassador to China from 2017 to 2020, a tumultuous period marked by a trade war and the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. But of all the topics we discussed at the expo, his decades-long friendship with the leader of the People’s Republic of China stands out.

“[On] April 29, 1985, I hosted Xi Jinping and his delegation from Hebei Province. He was the county-level party secretary,” Branstad says. “Sarah Lande, who was in charge of Iowa Sister States around the world, organized the trip.”

1985 China visit
Muscatine Journal File/Quad-City Times via ZUMA Press Wire

In 1985, the future president of the People’s Republic of China (top row, second from right) visited Iowa. A county-level party secretary at the time, Xi Jinping and his fellow delegates were warmly welcomed by the farmers and the families that Sarah Lande of Muscatine (front row, second from right) arranged as hosts.

The five-member Chinese delegation studied every aspect of Iowa’s agricultural prowess. A tour of family-owned Sukup Manufacturing of Sheffield, Iowa, was scheduled along with a visit to Jack Kintzle’s farm. Xi stayed in Muscatine at the home of Eleanor and Thomas Dvorchak. Xi’s delegation was also received by Branstad in Des Moines. The ramifications of that meeting reverberated decades later when Branstad journeyed to Beijing after being confirmed as ambassador. Among the personal effects he brought with him was a photograph of Xi and his colleagues from Hebei with Branstad in the governor’s office, complete with Xi’s autograph.

“All our Chinese visitors wanted to get their picture taken with me in front of this very famous photo,” Branstad said. This robust relationship forged a bond that links the leader of more than a billion Chinese with a state blanketed by 85,000 farms. That bond endures to this day.

In 2011, Branstad visited Beijing as governor. “Normally, I’d get to meet with the governor of our sister state, Hebei. [Instead] I got to meet Vice President Xi Jinping in the Great Hall of the People. He spent 45 minutes telling me how much he loved Iowa. He had his itinerary from that 1985 trip. He mentioned Luca Berrone, Sarah Lande, the Dvorchak family.”

Branstad seized the moment. His thank-you note to Xi for receiving him in the Great Hall included an invitation to return to Iowa for a reunion. Three months later, the Chinese consul general in Washington called to say Xi wanted to visit Iowa.

In February 2012, Xi returned to Muscatine, accompanied by the global press following the man who was only months away from becoming the sixth leader to rule the People’s Republic of China since its founding in 1949. 

Nikita Khrushchev

Some 25 years before Xi’s first visit to Iowa, the Cold War was at its height. The Berlin Wall was about to be built, and the Cuban Missile Crisis would soon threaten the lives of millions. Yet in the midst of this superpower standoff, Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev accepted the invitation of an Iowa housewife to visit her family’s farm, and for two short days in September 1959, America’s bitterest foe was welcomed to the Heartland.

I learned this story from Elizabeth (Liz) Garst, whose grandmother invited the Soviet dictator to visit Garst Farm near Coon Rapids, Iowa. The family’s current business manager, Garst took my call and shared her family’s story while preparing for the August auction of the family’s 1,995 acres of farmland.

By the time Khrushchev became First Secretary of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union, the Cold War was at its height. Quinn, who served in the U.S. State Department for 32 years, considers that period “the most dangerous moment in human history, when nuclear weapons in the Soviet Union and the United States were poised to be fired at each other.”

Enter Roswell Garst, one of Iowa’s most iconic farmers. “My grandfather was an agricultural innovator,” Liz Garst says. “He was very involved in the hybrid seed corn industry starting in 1929 when 0.5% of corn in the Midwest was in hybrid. His seed corn business was his main business.”

Roswell Garst and a friend from Coon Rapids, Charles Thomas, founded the Garst & Thomas Hybrid Corn Co., which marketed Henry Wallace’s Pioneer Hi-Bred brand corn. An Iowan who went on to become Franklin Roosevelt’s vice president, Wallace served as secretary of agriculture and vice president under FDR and secretary of commerce under FDR and Harry Truman. Wallace’s political career came to a halt in 1946 after he delivered a speech urging a more conciliatory foreign policy toward the Soviet Union. Truman promptly fired him. However, Roswell Garst and many fellow Iowans heard him loud and clear, supporting his call for trading with the Soviet Union and having cultural and educational exchanges. That was before Khrushchev came to power. Once he ascended, the first secretary proclaimed that the Soviet Union needed “an Iowa Corn Belt.”

“What Khrushchev really wanted was meat, milk, and eggs for his people,” Liz Garst says. 

In 1955, at the prompting of a Des Moines Register editorial, a U.S. agricultural delegation visited the Soviet Union and a Soviet delegation visited Iowa. Garst Farm was a featured stop. Months later, Garst received a personal invitation from Khrushchev to bring his hybrid seed corn to the Soviet Union.

Khrushchev at Garst farm
Tass, Getty Images

According to Liz Garst, her grandfather Roswell Garst (at right in center) exchanged more letters with Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev (center left) during the Cold War than President Eisenhower did. The First Secretary of the Communist Party toured Garst’s Iowa farm. Both were said to be straight talkers, and they loved to discuss the merits of seeds and soils with one another for hours.

The communist and the capitalist became fast friends. “The two men were quite a bit alike and hit it off. They were both peasants, country guys, not real sophisticated or polished. They both could talk about agriculture for days on end. They liked each other,” Garst recalls.

Roswell Garst was invited to the Soviet Union in 1956 and again in 1958. “On the trip in ’56, my grandmother was invited. She got to meet Mrs. Khrushchev,” Garst recalls. While thanking her hosts for their lovely hospitality, the elder Elizabeth Garst naturally invited the Khrushchevs to come to Iowa.

“To everyone’s amazement, Khrushchev took her up on her invitation in 1959. There was a lot of controversy about whether we should let him into the United States. This was the middle of the Cold War, but it was finally agreed that he could come,” she says.

Much like Xi Jinping’s trip to Muscatine in 2012, the Khrushchevs’ visit to Garst Farm made headlines worldwide. “They came out and spent the entire day — September 23, 1959. Ag tours in the morning. Lunch in a circus tent in the backyard at my grandma’s house. More ag tours in the afternoon. They went on to Iowa State for a brief visit before they began the next leg of their trip,” she says.

Khrushchev was sending a message to the Soviet people that it was OK to look to the West for ag technology. “He came here to lead by example,” Liz Garst says.  

As for her grandfather, “He was trying to make money. He was proud of being a capitalist.” But Roswell Garst had another motive, one that took the sting out of the loss of business he endured when fellow farmers turned against him for trading with a communist. “My grandfather believed in the Henry Wallace view of the world,” she says. “His particular take on it was this phrase: ‘Hungry people are dangerous people.’ ” With capitalism and compassion as his guiding lights, Roswell Garst evangelized for better farming practices at home and abroad the remainder of his life.  

The Iowa pilgrimages of Xi and Khrushchev were landmark expeditions that did far more than increase U.S. exports and benefit America’s balance of trade. Both visits proved that Iowa farmers can do more than just mend fences. They can build bridges — overseas.

The Land Report

Eric O’Keefe is the editor of The Land Report, the magazine of the American landowner. See LandReport.com.

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