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Garst, Roswell

Published onJul 30, 2021
Garst, Roswell

(June 17, 1898 – November 5, 1977)

Quick Facts

Garst played an important role in changing food production in the United States and abroad.

Roswell Garst helped establish and transform the modern seed corn business while seeking ways to produce food at the lowest possible cost, and he advised government officials, including Hubert Humphrey and Henry A. Wallace, regarding agriculture, although he is most often recognized for his relationship with Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.

Garst was born in Coon Rapids, Iowa, and graduated from Coon Rapids High School in 1915. From 1915 to 1920 he attended college, often for only one term, at Iowa State College, the University of Wisconsin, and Northwestern University. Garst did not complete a degree, but his experiences with college faculty left him, in the words of his biographer, "eager to prove himself as good as or superior to academicians."

Garst began full-time farming in 1920, this time in Canada with his brother Johnny. When farm commodity prices collapsed in 1920, Roswell left for home and began farming on his family land in 1921. Garst married Elizabeth Henak of Oxford Junction, Iowa, in 1922, and they specialized in dairy production.

In 1926 Garst and others formed a partnership, the Garst Land Company, to develop a housing subdivision in Des Moines. Garst moved to Des Moines and was a salesman for the company. While in Des Moines, Garst met Henry A. Wallace, editor of Wallaces' Farmer and Iowa Homestead and one of the founders of the Hi-Bred Corn Company. Hybrid corn was an innovation based on crossing inbred strains to produce larger yields than traditional corn varieties. Garst instructed the tenant on his family farm near Coon Rapids to plant hybrid seed on the property in 1927. When the real estate business suffered with the economic downturn of 1929, Garst returned to agriculture as a newly converted proponent of hybrid seed.

Garst entered the hybrid seed business in 1930. In an agreement with Henry A. Wallace, Garst would raise the second generation of parent stock that yielded the hybrid seed. He would sell that seed on behalf of Pioneer and pay royalties to the company. The first year he planted 15 acres of parent stock to produce 300 bushels of seed corn. In 1931 Garst and Charley Thomas formed Garst and Thomas Hi-Bred Corn Company. Garst helped spread the practice of raising expensive hybrid seed during a time of low commodity prices with a combination of aggressive salesmanship and a product that lived up to expectations. During the 1930s, Garst expanded the operation at Coon Rapids. In addition to the seed business, he also became a farm manager, working for landlords to help tenants improve productivity. The 1930s also brought Garst into politics. He served on the national Corn-Hog Committee, the group that helped implement the New Deal agriculture program directed by U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Henry A. Wallace. By the end of the decade, many leaders sought his advice.

In the 1940s and 1950s Garst was an aggressive promoter of new techniques and technology. His wartime experiments with fertilizer convinced him that corn growers would benefit from increased applications of nitrogen. He advocated raising corn in the same fields year after year, a practice called "continuous corn." Applying supplemental nitrogen allowed farmer to cease raising low-return crops such as small grains and forage crops that were needed to maintain soil fertility. In 1946 Garst studied scientists' efforts to use corncobs, considered waste products, as a feed supplement. After failing to convince Iowa State College researchers to conduct cob-feeding experiments, he experimented on his own farm in 1946-1947 and became convinced that feeding ground corncobs yielded cheaper gains than feeding grain and hay.

During the Cold War period, Garst helped facilitate exchanges with Soviet and Eastern Bloc leaders to share knowledge and the latest farm technology. He wanted to avoid the mutual destruction of atomic warfare, but his main concern was the American farmer During those years, U.S. farm productivity increased more rapidly than American population growth. Government policies spurred production by maintaining commodity prices at comparatively high levels. Garst believed that increased domestic consumption and exports, even to Communist countries, would help farmer maintain a respectable standard of living. In 1955 the U.S. and Soviet governments exchanged agricultural delegations. Garst met the Soviet delegation and received government approval to visit the Soviet Union, Rumania, and Hungary on a mission to sell seed corn and modern corn production equipment. His journeys convinced him that the best hope for world peace was to alleviate hunger. Garst participated in numerous exchanges during the following years.

The most famous of those exchanges occurred in 1959, when Garst and his wife, Elizabeth, hosted Nikita Khrushchev and his delegation at Coon Rapids. Garst corresponded with Khrushchev and even visited him in January 1959. Garst stated that if Khrushchev ever traveled to the United States, he should be sure to visit Coon Rapids. On September 23, Khrushchev, his wife, and the Soviet delegation arrived at the Garst farm. Hundreds of reporters were present to cover the event; so many pressed in on Khrushchev and Garst that Garst hurled some silage at reporters to clear the view for his guest.

In the 1960s Garst continued to innovate. He convinced farmer in the Midwest to develop cow-calf herds rather than purchase feeder cattle from the plains. Garst used the entire corn plant as cattle feed, expanding his work on the value of cellulose in cutting beef production costs. He hoped to travel to the People's Republic of China the way he had to Eastern Europe and the Soviet Union, but Chinese and U.S. officials could not agree on terms. Garst sent his sons to South America and Central America to explore commercial and economic development projects.

Garst continued his involvement with Garst and Thomas Company in the 1970s. He was a spokesperson for agricultural innovation at home and abroad. He gave presentations to civic and professional groups and conducted tours of the family farm. At age 79, Garst died of a heart attack.

Selections of text republished with permission from the Iowa Biographical Dictionary, edited by David Hudson, Marvin Bergman, and Loren Horton. Published by the University of Iowa Press, Iowa City, IA. Online publication, 2009.

Selected Sources

Garst Family Papers, MS 579, Special Collections Department, Iowa State University Library.

For a full biography, see Harold Lee, Roswell Garst: A Biography (1984).

Anderson, JL. "Garst, Roswell" The Biographical Dictionary of Iowa. University of Iowa Press, 2009. Web. 9 June 2017

Note: All photographs related to the Khrushchev visit in 1959 are copyrighted by the photographer's estate. Please contact the Ohio Historical Society's Joe Munroe Archives for permission and/or more information. 

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