Nikita Khrushchev’s Failed Corn Crusade: A Maize Love Affair

Nikita Khrushchev, the peasant-born Soviet leader who rose to succeed Stalin, is well known for instigating the Cuban Missile Crisis. People might not know, however, that he loved corn. His infatuation with corn forced the Soviet Union on an agricultural crusade that would disappoint him almost as much as the missile crisis humiliated him. Khrushchev, desperately needing to increase the Soviet food supply and facing competition with the United States, implemented reforms to elevate corn as the new crown jewel of the masses that would fulfill their demand for meat and dairy products. At the end of the day, his efforts showcased political ineptitude and short-sightedness more than they fostered progressive, beneficial change.

Agriculture and the food supply during Stalin’s reign needed improvement, to say the least. The food shortages and starving citizens of that period demonstrated that the Soviet government cared more about constructing machinery than filling the growling stomachs of its people.  Khrushchev acknowledged the predominance of manufacturing over food cultivation in Soviet policy and how, as a result, industry was in a much better condition than agriculture. He took it upon himself to solve the issue and called for a campaign to bolster food production. In his statement “On Measures for the Further Development of Soviet Agriculture,” the Soviet leader detailed that “between 1940 and 1952, industrial production grew 2.3 times” but “the overall production of agriculture (in comparable prices) rose only by 10 per cent.” He then proclaimed: “The most urgent tasks confront us in the sphere of livestock-farming, since the lag here is long drawn-out in character, and we will not be able to improve the position quickly without decisive measures.”

With totalitarian providence, Khrushchev declared corn as the answer to the nation’s sustenance problems and the vast sowing of the grain as the necessary decisive measure. Corn, under his reasoning, would provide the Soviet Union abundant fodder to increase meat and dairy production.

In addition to an arms race, the United States and the Soviet Union also engaged in a lesser-known “corn race.” Khrushchev was an ardent communist and awaited the time when his statement that “the Soviet Union would surpass everything in the United States,” including corn production, would become reality. He prepared, labored, and fought for that “jovial day.” However, history would never see that day. His efforts proved futile and the United States remained the superior agricultural power.

It would be inaccurate to claim that totalitarian impulse and communist vision were the only drivers of the Soviet leader’s agricultural reforms. Khrushchev genuinely cared about, and was fascinated by, farming. During his visit to the United States, he made a special point to visit a farm in Iowa. Khrushchev ventured to Coon Rapids to meet with farmer Roswell Garst. As the 1959 Carroll Daily Times article “Khrushchev in Corn Country” detailed, the Premier toured the farm, learned more about farming practices, and was “particularly impressed with Garst’s mechanized system to feed cattle and his method of irrigating his fields through steel pipes and sprinklers -- standard features on American farms, but not in the Soviet Union.”

The initial success of Khrushchev’s corn policies made the man briefly resemble the corn champion he wished to be. But their ultimate failure demolished any hopes that the Premier would go down in history as an adept and wise agricultural leader. According to the essay “Corn Campaign” by Professor James Von Geldern, Chair of Russian Studies at Macalester College, corn acreage increased from 4.3 million hectares in 1954 to 18 million just a year later. Corn grew in abundant supply on this newly developed farmland thanks to favorable hot weather during two successive years. Khrushchev misinterpreted a lucky shot as intelligent and sustainable policy. He continued to bullhead and get his way, sowing more corn crops even when areas lacked the “appropriate climatic conditions and sufficient labor supplies.” Soon a cold and rainy season came, bringing retribution for Khrushchev’s haste and lack of forethought. Seventy to 80 percent of the corn acreage was in ruins.

Nikita Khrushchev, Soviet leader, self-made man, the grand “Mr. Corn,” dreamed of a corn-powered utopia, but in the end saw millions of barren acres and his eventual removal as leader of both Soviet agriculture and the Soviet Union.