Nikita Khrushchev and the Great Soviet Corn Project,
In almost all Communist countries a new leader’s first political move is to institute a revolutionary new program to help further his goals for the nation. For Stalin it was a program of collectivization and modernization, while Mao’s Great Leap Forward was an attempt to rapidly industrialize China, and for Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev, his bets were hedged on corn.
Ever since the 19th century the United States has been the King of Corn. The US tops corn production by far, accounting for almost 42% percent of world production. In contrast, 2nd place China only produces 17% of world production. Ever since the founding of the Soviet Union, the country had suffered chronic food shortages. Khrushchev had an ambitious plan to solve this problem, the adoption of American style corn agriculture in Russia. Khrushchev hoped not only to solve his nation’s growing food problems, but to challenge America’s crown as King Corn.
In 1955 Khrushchev visited the United States and was invited by a farmer named Roswell Garst to tour his farm. Khrushchev was impressed by the Garst enterprise, which inspired him in his corn campaign. Garst sold the Soviet Union 4,500 tons of seed corn, which would form the basis of Soviet corn agriculture. Garth warned Khruschev to only plant in southern parts of Russia, and to use plenty of fertilizer and pesticides. Khrushchev ignored Garst’s advice. In fact he went corn crazy, founding state programs to plant corn all over the USSR regardless of climate or soil. He created state programs to plant corn on virgin land, he even created programs to plant corn in Siberia. Khrushchev’s corn frenzy was so wild that corn farms were built by the state even though there were no farmers to operate them! Meanwhile Khrushchev toured the country’s agricultural communes to encourage farmers to give up wheat and barley, the traditional cereal crops of Russia for centuries, and to start planting corn.
The corn project had its problems. Although Khrushchev intended Soviet agriculture to use the techniques of the Americans, most of those techniques were not headed. Soviet corn often fell pray to pests, disease, and land exhaustion. More importantly Soviet farmers lacked the equipment and know how when it came to harvesting corn. Despite these problems corn harvests thrived… at least at first. Corn cultivation rose from 4 million hectares in 1954, to over 37 million hectares in 1962. This abundance of growth was buoyed by several successive years where the weather was unseasonably hot for Russia. It was only a matter of time before the natural climate of Mother Russia burst Khruschev’s corn bubble.
In 1964, after the hottest year on record, Russian temperatures suddenly dropped to their regular levels. With the blink of an eye 70%-80% of all of the new corn acreage planted died from the cold. Farmers were thrown out of work and forced into bread lines for food. In a cruel irony, there was little food to be had, since the Soviet Union had invested so much into the failed corn program. Added to this problem was the fact that the nations wheat and barley crop had been devastated by the earlier hot years. What resulted was another terrible shortage of food that plagued the USSR.
Nikita Khrushchev would be ousted from power in October of 1964, in part because of his failed agricultural plants. He passed away in 1971. Today, the United States is still King Corn, and unlikely to be challenged anytime soon.