Garst Seed Company, Inc.
Garst Seed Company, Inc.
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of Syngenta Seeds Inc.
Incorporated: 1931 as Garst and Thomas Hi-Bred Corn Company
Sales: $100 million (2006 est.)
NAIC: 424910 Farm Supplies Merchant Wholesalers
Garst Seed Company, Inc., is a Slater, Iowa-based subsidiary of Minnesota’s Syngenta Seeds Inc. The company and its charismatic founder, Roswell Garst, were instrumental in promoting the use of hybrid corn. Today Garst offers growers several strands of corn hybrids as well as silage corn, Zimmerman white corn, and specialty corn. Garst also sells high-yield seeds for soybeans, sorghum, alfalfa, and sunflowers, and insecticides and treatments for corn, soybeans, and sunflowers. In addition, the company offers financing and makes its agronomists available to help growers maximize their yields. Garst stays in the vanguard of its field by relying on the research muscle of its Swiss parent company, Syngenta, the world’s largest company dedicated solely to agriculture. Working with Syngenta’s research program, Garst develops a genetic pool through the annual planting of 1.5 million corn plots and 800,000 soybean plots.
FOUNDER IOWA-BORN: 1898
Roswell Garst was born in the small farming community of Coon Rapids, Iowa, in June 1898, the son of a prominent general store owner and landowner, and the nephew of a former Iowa governor. In the months before entering Iowa State College in the fall of 1916, Garst had worked a 200-acre farm with his older brother, Johnny, an experience that by comparison made his agricultural courses seem dull. He dropped out and transferred to the school Johnny had attended, the University of Wisconsin. Again he soon lost interest, returned home, gave Iowa State College another try, dropped out, and ended his nomadic academic career with a single quarter at Northwestern University in the spring of 1919.
After spending several years working a Coon Rapids dairy farm, and getting married along the way, Garst moved to Des Moines, Iowa, in 1926 to start a real estate development company. It was here that he became friends with an agriculturist ten years his senior, Henry A. Wallace, better known today as the vice-president of the United States from 1941 to 1945 in the administration of Franklin D. Roosevelt, and an independent presidential candidate in 1948. By the time Garst met him, Wallace was the influential editor of Wallace’s Farmer, a publication previously edited by his father. The younger Wallace also experimented with high-yielding strains of corn, a subject that fascinated his young friend, and had formed a company called the Hi-Bred Corn Company, which later became Pioneer Hi-Bred. Although a natural salesman, one with an evangelical bent, Garst was not particularly happy living in the city. Hybrid corn looked like something he could sell, convert the world to, and use to pave his return to farming life.
With the stock market crash of 1929, the event that triggered the Great Depression of the 1930s, Garst’s real estate ventures floundered and in 1930 he moved back to Coon Rapids to become involved in the hybrid seed corn business somewhat sooner than he had planned. Roswell made arrangements with Wallace to produce hybrid seed under franchise, their agreement calling for a lower royalty as sales approached 50,000 bushels. Greatly amused, Wallace called Garst an optimist, telling him, “There won’t be 50,000 bushels of hybrid corn sold in your lifetime or mine.” Garst answered, “I’ll hit 50,000 bushels in five years.”
GARST AND THOMAS FORMED: 1931
In the spring of 1930 Garst planted a 15-acre plot of seed corn, which yielded 300 bushels. Given that there were only 3,000 bushels of hybrid seed corn produced in the entire country that year, his boast to sell 50,000 bushels in five years seemed even more far fetched. Moreover, the seed corn was expensive, farmers were suffering through the Depression, and they were a conservative, penny-pinching lot to start with. Roswell sold the seed corn a bushel at a time out of the trunk of his car, failing to make enough money to meet expenses, and unable to borrow because he still owed money on a failed real estate venture in Des Moines. He needed a business partner with money and credit capacity. Garst found it in Charley Thomas, someone he knew from high school who, two years earlier, had his arm mangled in a corn picker. Unable to continue farming, Thomas agreed to be Garst’s partner, and they formed the Garst and Thomas Hi-Bred Corn Company in 1931. To provide funding both Garst and Thomas put all their assets on the line, with Thomas contributing the inheritance his wife received from her father and Garst selling his dairy herd and mortgaging his farm.
Garst and Thomas traveled the western Corn Belt in Iowa, Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado to sell the Pioneer brand of seed corn, drumming up business by convincing farmers to plant sample plots next to their openly pollinated corn. In exchange they asked only that the farmers pay them the market price for half the increase in their yield. Come harvest time, the farmers were surprised to learn that the hybrid corn had outperformed the regular corn by such an extent that the amount they owed was much greater than if they had simply purchased the seed corn outright. Hence, when Garst posed the inevitable question, “So how much do you want for next year?,” the farmers had every incentive needed to justify placing an order, and they no longer complained about the high price of seed corn. The company also spurred business by focusing on the largest farmers in an area. By winning them over they found ready customers in the smaller growers. Just as important to the company’s success, Garst convinced the land-owning insurance companies to buy hybrid corn, emphasizing virtues other than high yield, this at a time when the government was trying to reduce a surplus of corn on the market. Such craftiness resulted in rapidly escalating sales of hybrid corn, allowing Garst to back his boast of selling 50,000 bushels within five years. By the end of the 1930s he had a sales force of 859 working the Corn Belt.
Although an avowed Republican, due more to family tradition than anything else, Roswell Garst, through his connection to Wallace, who became U.S. Secretary of Agriculture in 1933, forged strong ties to the Roosevelt administration. He went to Washington, D.C., as part of the Iowa Corn-Hog Committee and played a prominent role in the creation of a corn-hog allotment program. He turned down a post at the U.S. Department of Agriculture, but his visibility was such that his name was bandied about as a candidate for Congress or possibly the governorship.
Backed by the resources and research of Syngenta, Garst is the recognized leader in high-yielding seed with excellent agronomic performance.
Uninterested in holding elective office, Garst nevertheless remained very much in the public eye for the rest of his life. As World War II commenced in Europe he was a vocal supporter of supplying food to the Allies and urged the passage of the Lend-Lease Act that supplied much needed materials to the Allies at a time when the United States was still a neutral party. After the country entered the conflict, Garst offered his regular input to the Department of Agriculture, his knowledge prompting President Roosevelt to call him the “Henry Kaiser of American agriculture.” Garst continued to run his business during the war, while becoming a major promoter of commercial fertilizer to further increase crop production. After the war he also investigated ways to convert corn cobs into animal feed.
In the 1950s Garst developed an international reputation and cultivated an unusual relationship, even friendship, with the premier of the Soviet Union, Nikita Khrushchev. In 1955 Khrushchev announced a goal of increasing Soviet corn production eightfold by 1960 to increase the country’s ability to raise livestock and improve food production. An editorial writer for the Des Moines Register, Lauren Soth, then invited Khrushchev to send a delegation to Iowa to learn how the state’s farmers succeeded so well in such an endeavor. He also suggested that the Communists invite some Iowa farmers, livestock specialists, and agronomists to visit the Soviet Union. To the surprise of both Soth and the U.S. government, the editorial was translated into Russian, made its way to Khrushchev’s desk, and he accepted the invitation. Garst was not among the 12 Americans who traveled to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1955, nor was he on the itinerary for the Soviet delegation on the reciprocal visit. Only small family farms, 80 to 160 acres in size, were chosen even though the Soviets were more interested in seeing the latest technological developments that they could adapt to their collective farms, which were at least 20,000 acres in size. By this time the Garst and Thomas Hi-Bred Corn Company was the largest company of its kind and Garst operated a 5,000-acre farm. At a reception Garst waylaid the Soviet’s deputy minister of agriculture, Vladimir Matskevitch, told him about his operation, and the next day Matskevitch refused to make the next stop on the Iowa tour. Instead, he accepted a ride from Garst and spent a day at Garst Farms, taking copious notes, which were eventually provided to Khrushchev.
Garst received a personal invitation to visit the Soviet Union, and he used all of his considerable sales ability to not only convince the U.S. State Department to allow him to make the trip but to also sell seed and equipment if the Soviets were interested in buying. He also believed that such a development could greatly curb Cold War tensions. Just as Wallace had been amused by Garst’s naive optimism, the State Department acquiesced, certain that the Soviets would not be buying anything from the Iowa freelancer. However, when Garst traveled to the Soviet Union, he was summoned to a private meeting with Khrushchev to discuss farm techniques as well as East-West trade. Far from intimidated by the Soviet leader, Garst asked him how the Soviets could steal the plans for the atomic bomb in three weeks yet know so little about U.S. agriculture when everything they needed to know could be found in the pages of U.S. farm journals. Upon hearing the translation, Khrushchev was said to have laughed, raised two fingers, and commented, “It only took us two weeks. You locked up the atomic bomb, so we had to steal it. When you offered us information about agriculture for nothing, we thought that might be what it was worth.” The next day Garst sold 5,000 tons of hybrid seed corn to the Soviet Union and Romania and became an international figure.
KHRUSHCHEV PAYS A VISIT TO GARST’S FARM: 1959
Garst’s farm hosted constant delegations from the Soviet Union and Eastern European satellite states, and Garst made return visits as he increased his profile as a citizen diplomat—which fattened the dossier the Federal Bureau of Investigation kept on his activities. He was in Hungary in 1956 when the Soviets crushed a rebellion, an event that soured him on the Communists, and he decided to sever his ties to the Soviet Union. Soon he was concerned that the Soviets were not properly following his advice on planting and fertilization, and he lobbied for a personal meeting with Khrushchev to correct the mistakes, as well as take the opportunity to urge an end to the arms race. He and his wife visited Khrushchev in early 1959 and the two men enjoyed blunt, sometimes humorous and sometimes contentious, conversations about farming and world peace.
Later in 1959 Khrushchev was scheduled to visit the United States for 12 days and requested a chance to visit Garst’s farm. Roswell Garst was the only American outside of President Dwight Eisenhower that the Soviet leader asked to see. The September 1959 visit became international news and something of a media circus. The most famous picture from that day showed Garst hurling corn husks at a horde of uncomprehending reporters who were standing on a trench silo that he was afraid was about to collapse. Looking highly amused, Khrushchev watched in the background.
- Garst and Thomas Hi-Bred Corn Company is launched.
- Roswell Garst retires.
- Garst Seed Company is formed in the breakup of Garst and Thomas interests.
- ICI Americas acquires the company.
- Company name is changed to ICI Seeds.
- The Garst name is readopted.
- AgriPro Seeds, Inc., is acquired.
- Syngenta Seeds acquires Garst.
Garst’s appeals for world peace were not realized, of course, and a few years later Khrushchev was ousted from power. Garst may have been regarded as an idealist who did not truly understand the ways of the world, yet it could be argued that he recognized, decades before anyone else in the United States, that the Soviet Union, unable to meet the basic needs of its people, was rotting from within and would ultimately collapse on its own.
Garst’s health began to fail in the 1960s. After having his larynx removed, he learned to speak with a mechanical voice box and continue to advocate the use of hybrid corn and fertilizer in Eastern Europe as well as Latin America. In 1970 he retired from Garst and Thomas, and November 1977 he died from a heart attack at the age of 79. His wife lived until 1996. Ten months after her death the Iowa farm that had hosted Khrushchev was converted by a granddaughter, who had been photographed sitting of the lap of the premier’s wife, into a bed and breakfast resort.
By the time of Garst’s death, his two sons, Stephen and David, ran Garst and Thomas. In 1983 the Garst and Thomas families split their business interests and year David Garst formed Garst Seed Co. A graduate in economics from Stanford University in 1949, he had joined Garst and Thomas as a sales representative in 1956 and succeeded his father as sales manager in 1961. After the breakup with Thomas, Garst Seed also severed its ties to Pioneer Hybrid International, which began to market Pioneer brand seed itself. Garst Seed remained independent for just two years. In 1985 it was the United States’ largest hybrid corn breeder, generating sales of $60 million. It attracted the attention of ICI Americas, a subsidiary of the United Kingdom’s Imperial Chemical Industries plc, which was looking to expand in the United States in a number of directions.
ICI invested a good deal of capital to expand Garst, as well as spending money to gain a foothold in Europe’s seed industry. In 1990 Garst added soybeans to its product line with the acquisition of Edward J. Funk & Sons, which sold under the Super Crost Seeds label. Based in Indiana, the Super Crost Seed Company was established in 1935. While Garst and Thomas dominated the western markets, Super Crost had become a major player in the eastern United States. Later Funk was also purchased by a British firm, British Petroleum plc, which then sold the asset to ICI.
Garst Seed changed its name in late 1991 to ICI Seeds, but by this time the parent company was experiencing some difficulties, exacerbated by a recession, and there was talk of a restructuring. Just two years later ICI split up its North American assets into separate corporations, ICI plc and Zeneca, Inc., the latter becoming the home for ICI Seeds. The Garst name returned in 1996 when ICI Seeds became the Garst Seed Company once again. Then in August 1996 Garst became part of Advanta Group, a global seed enterprise formed through the merger of Zeneca Seeds and a Dutch company, VanderHave. Garst’s Slater, Iowa, research and development center served as Advanta’s key facility for pursuing corn and soybean research. It also developed sorghum and alfalfa products.
Garst solidified its position in the soybean market with the 1998 acquisition of AgriPro Seeds, Inc., based in Shawnee Mission, Kansas. In addition to soybeans, AgriPro also offered corn, cotton, wheat, alfalfa, sunflowers, sorghum, and millet products. A year later, Garst acquired Alta, Iowa-based PSA Genetics, LLC., adding a retail marketing and distribution network that was especially strong in western Iowa, northeast Kansas, Nebraska, and southeast South Dakota. Garst added to its marketing capabilities in 2000 by acquiring the retail marketing and distribution network of Francesville, Indiana-based Fred Gutwein & Sons and the Gutwein Seeds brand.
Garst enjoyed consistent sales increases from 1996 into the early years of the new century. The company gained even more research assets to further grow the business when it was acquired by the Swiss multinational agri-chemical firm, Sygenta, which also acquired other major seed companies, Golden Harvest and Northrup King. While it shared in Syngenta’s research efforts, Garst maintained its own marketing, sales, and customer service departments. It faced the challenge of maintaining its identity and preserving its tradition as part of a multinational giant.
Cargill, Inc.; Pioneer Hi-Bred International, Inc.; Semi-nis, Inc.
Burchett, Andrew, “Syngenta Grows,” Farm Journal, November 29, 2004.
Jay, John, “ICI Makes Bid for Top Seed Breeder,” Sunday Times (London), May 24, 1987.
Leake, Linda L., “Seeds of Change,” Agri Marketing, May 2001, p. 20.
Lee, Harold, Roswell Garst: A Biography, Ames: Iowa State University Press, 1984, 310 p. “Missionary of Food: Roswell Garst,” New York Times, September 23, 1959.
Wald, Matthew L., “Roswell Garst, 79, Khrushchev’s Farm Host in 1959,” New York Times, November 7, 1977.