Citizen Diplomacy

Citizen Diplomacy | Documentary
Nov 6, 2023 | 57 min

Iowans have been a source for bridging the diplomatic gap between nations for decades. Strong ties between the Soviet Union, Japan and China all started with a handshake that led to greater understanding between people of different nations.




Citizen Diplomacy is the concept that individuals have the right to help shape U.S. foreign relations by bridging the gap between nations.

Liz Garst: He was sure, his favorite phrase, he used it constantly. Hungry people are dangerous people. If we can help them eat, they will be less dangerous to us.

Mary Mack: Dad just saw people hurting and he wanted to help. And when this opportunity came up, he had to check with his brothers and with mom to see if that's okay. And they agreed. And so he went.


By bridging the gap between nations and making connections where official channels are either in dispute or they don't exist at all.

Luca Berrone: Years later we did find out that it was a significant trip. I certainly didn't realize how much of an impact it may have had.

That gap is filled by people motivated to engage with the rest of the world in a meaningful, mutually beneficial dialogue.

Sofia Fernandez: To go, share my knowledge, help develop agriculture, use the limited resources that I have to make those big changes and just keep doing that.


Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.


On September 23, 1959, Nikita Khrushchev, Premier of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, visited the Roswell Garst Farm in Coon Rapids, Iowa. The road to this single day in September had several twists and turns.


In the mid-1950s, there was a fear that the USSR, driven by the need for food and political power, would attack the United States with nuclear weapons in a final showdown. Likewise, an overwhelming number of Soviet citizens, including Khrushchev himself, believed the United States wanted to attack the USSR to crush their way of life. Roswell Garst, an Iowa farmer and seed salesman, felt he could do something to prevent a war on a scale that would likely have made a good share of the planet uninhabitable. Liz Garst is one of Roswell's granddaughters.

Liz Garst: He was sure, his favorite phrase, he used it constantly. Hungry people are dangerous people. If we can help them eat, they will be less dangerous to us.

To pull the two superpowers back from the brink of war, Garst began a campaign to sell seed corn to the Soviets. The corn would be used to feed local livestock that would, in turn, help feed a population of nearly 210 million people that were spread across 11 time zones.

Liz Garst: The way out of this nuclear war that everyone was sure was coming wasn't going to be to build more nuclear bombs, but rather to bring them to our bosom, in old fashioned language, to embrace them and give them too much to lose.


The first steps to the Garst's front door in Coon Rapids began with an Op-ed piece written by Des Moines Register and Tribune opinion page editor Lauren Soth. The 1955 article, which won a Pulitzer Prize, extended an invitation to any delegation Khrushchev wants to select, with a promise to hide none of our secrets.

Khrushchev was shown the article, he directed his staff to contact the U.S. State Department to accept the invitation.

Liz Garst: The State Department didn't even know what he was talking about because they didn't read the Des Moines Register.

After sorting out the details, federal officials agreed to the tour. They asked what was then Iowa State College to organize the junket. Iowa State asked the Iowa Farm Bureau for assistance. Despite the final outcome, the State Department was against the idea.

Liz Garst: They didn't like it. It was a proposal to share technology with our enemy and our federal government was really into anti-Communist chest beating.


A 12-man Russian agricultural delegation looks in on Iowa farming methods.

U.S. officials told the Soviets they could come to the States, but they had to stay away from Washington, D.C. The Soviets had no problem going directly to the Hawkeye State to pursue their goal of increased food production.


A series of chance events put Garst in a face-to-face meeting with the head of the Soviet delegation. Garst offered to show them around his farm, but Iowa State and the Iowa Farm Bureau refused to allow a change in the schedule. Undeterred, Garst convinced the leader of the Soviet group to visit his farm and gave these instructions.

Liz Garst: And at the last second, just don't get in Iowa State's car and I'll send my hired hand up and he'll drive up and open up the door and you and your interpreter, you just get in my car. And people might yell at you, people might be mad, but no one is going to shoot you for getting in my car, no one will even put you in jail. You just insist it can happen. So, that's how the first connection happened. Roswell basically kidnapped this guy from underneath the nose of Iowa State University. And Roswell was a fabulous salesman.

After the tour, the group returned to their pre-planned schedule, which included stops in five other U.S. states. Not long after the Soviet delegation returned home, Garst received a direct invitation from Khrushchev that lept over all the normal diplomatic channels.

Liz Garst: Khrushchev wrote Roswell a letter and said, come to the Soviet Union and sell us hybrid seed corn. And that is because hybrid seed corn was the magic key for our productivity.

To sell the hybrid seeds to the Soviets, Garst needed to secure export licenses. But the U.S. State Department refused to grant the necessary paperwork. In response, he hired a lobbyist and campaigned to gain approval.

Liz Garst: They finally succumbed, probably because Roswell was a really good harasser, if he wanted something he didn't let go. They finally gave him the expert licenses with the words, we're giving them to you because we know you're going to fail, they won't accept Western technology and they won't pay you hard currency and so you can't make money, and so you're going to fail, so go ahead and do this if you want. So, he met with Khrushchev and the two of them hit it off. They were alike. They were both peasants, not very sophisticated, elegant or refined men, but rather good old country boys, loved agriculture, both of them big storytellers, both of them very direct on what they thought about things without pussyfooting around. They could speak to each other without getting mad, which is a skill that is often missing in this world.


Garst sold his first bags of Pioneer Hi-Bred seed via what was eventually called Peace through Corn. At home, the venture did have a cost. Pioneer Hi-Bred, one of Garst's seed suppliers, did not want to be seen doing business with the Communists. But as a franchisee, the company was unable to legally stop him from making the sales.

Liz Garst: Then he got a lot of hate mail. We suffered a pretty significant cancellation of seed corn orders from U.S. farmers who did not want to do business with someone they thought was a Communist.


In 1959, President Eisenhower invited Khrushchev to visit the U.S., making it the first time a Soviet leader had visited the West. The trip included a visit to Coon Rapids and the Garst Farm.


Khrushchev arrived in the United States on September 15, 1959. After meeting with President Eisenhower, he traveled the country from coast to coast and eventually landed in Iowa on September 22.

Here Khrushchev arrives a little close to the official party. You can see him shaking hands now with the Governor --

By September 23, the Premier was on his way from his hotel in Des Moines to the Garst Farm in Coon Rapids.

Liz Garst: I did not understand how big a deal it was. I knew that we had a connection with Russia because the relationship between Khrushchev and my grandfather started way before Khrushchev visited here. And we had hosted a lot of Soviet on our farm between '55 and '59. I remember all the TV cameras being lined up on the other side of the shrubs, poking over the shrubs, looking at what was going on. And we were pretty excited about that. We wanted to be movie stars. We had younger siblings, but we were the only three judged old enough to be there that morning. My mother had had a cesarean section a few weeks before the visit and been in the hospital, checked out to come to this event. Big mistake, she spent all day upstairs resting. So, the three of us were terribly supervised that day, meaning we had a great day, a really fun day.


Khrushchev’s entourage included his wife Nina and his 24-year-old son Sergei, who had a great deal of respect for Garst. 

Sergei Khrushchev: I thought that he was a great person because he was the person who first, or one of the first, drilled the hole in the Iron Curtain from the American side. And he was a great businessman.

Garst spent time showing Khrushchev examples of mechanized farming and livestock production. During the tour, the press corps began inching closer and closer to the duo. As the ring closed, Garst lost his patience with the press and famously threw corn silage at those close at hand. While the incident became fodder for headlines, Garst's wife Elizabeth was less than happy with Roswell's outburst.

Liz Garst: And she was furious. Your grandfather threw corn silage at reporters and people are laughing and thinking that's funny and that is not funny. Don't you ever throw corn silage at reporters. Don't throw anything at anybody, it's not polite! She was furious with him for being so crude as to be photographed throwing things at people.


Sergei Khrushchev: And after all these events and the swarm of journalists and politicians, he sat peacefully in the Garst house drinking tea. He asked Mr. Garst, how many people work on your farm? He told me, how many sons do you have? He told, four, and they're as strong as I am. And my father looked at them and thought, in our collective farm it will be at least 60 people need to work on this. And Mr. Garst told, you can send your people and I will teach them how to work on this as productive as we work it. For my father, America was adversary, but not enemy. He tried to protect the Soviet Union against possible American attacks. He repeatedly told that we have to take example from America, we have to buy their licenses, we have to learn from them how to work.


Liz Garst: He could trust Roswell because of that profit motive and Khrushchev spent quite a bit of time trying to understand Roswell's motives and concluded I think in the end it was more than just profit motive, that he was just such a salesman.

Because of his relationship with Khrushchev, Garst is believed to have had considerable influence over Soviet agricultural policy between 1959 and 1964 when the Premier was deposed.

Liz Garst: It was very clearly the first thaw in the terrible Cold War, a minor early step on introducing the Soviet Union to the West through the most important thing, food. Just a huge part of Iowa is our food production and the power of food and diplomacy is just fantastic. He had a start, but things don't go in a straight line ever in history, they go up and down.


In 1959, two typhoons rolled over Yamanashi Prefecture in Japan. The storm killed 200, left thousands homeless, and devastated the local livestock herd. Among those hearing about the storm was Air Force Master Sergeant Richard Thomas. The World War II veteran and Des Moines, Iowa native, had a deep connection to the area. In 1958, while stationed in Japan, Thomas had helped make Yamanashi's capital of Kofu a Sister City of Iowa's capital, Des Moines.


Richard Vander Mey was a close friend at the end of Thomas' life.

Richard Vander Mey: He just said it just wiped out everything, villages, houses, farms, killed a lot of people, but this part of Japan was just devastated. And he saw the suffering of the Japanese people and Dick was the kind of guy if he saw something that needed fixing or he saw a need, he was the kind of guy that would jump in and do what he could.


Thomas came up with a plan to send aid in the form of hogs to help replace the animals that had been lost. Working through official channels, he eventually was put in contact with Boone, Iowa farmer Walter Goeppinger, President of the National Corn Growers Association. Sheila Goeppinger Anderson is one of Walter's granddaughters.

Sheila Goeppinger: So, my grandparents were very concerned about world hunger issues and trying to feed the world. And Walt was very instrumental in trying to get grain marketed to other countries. And so, he really had a diverse interest in trying to promote agriculture for the U.S.

Goeppinger pulled together politicians and farmers to fill the order for 36 hogs and 60,000 bushels of corn, enough to feed the animals for two months. On January 17, 1960, after a mechanical problem grounded the specially configured Air Force C-130, the 28 gilts and eight boars were loaded into the plane's cargo bay. Goeppinger told his oldest son, Hans, that he needed to take the day off from classes at Iowa State to help out.

Sheila Goeppinger: I don't know how those arrangements were handled, but he went down and physically helped with I believe loading grain, getting the hogs on the aircraft. It was a bitter cold day, I know that much. And part of my dad's concern about the whole thing was what might go wrong. What could go wrong with this project?


Roscoe Marsden, an Ames, Iowa farmer and President of the Iowa Corn Growers Association and Albert Miller, a farmer from Ogden, had been enlisted to take care of the animals along the way. The pair would then stay in Japan for two months to teach Yamanashi farmers how to feed and care for the hogs. Mary "Sam" Mack, Miller's daughter, remembers that day.

Mary Mack: And there was nothing between Canada and the Des Moines Airport that day from the wind, to stop the wind. It was just brutally cold. It was bittersweet because you wanted your dad to do what he wanted to do, but at the same time you didn't want him to go because you'd miss him. Dad just saw people hurting and he wanted to help, and when this opportunity came up he had to check with his brothers and with mom to see if that's okay. And they agreed. And so, he went.


Miller and Marsden lost only one hog during the 6,100-mile journey. On January 20, 1960, the 35 hogs and their two handlers arrived in Tokyo. After two weeks in quarantine, the animals and handlers arrived in Kofu. Until this interview, Mack had never seen this film.


Mary Mack: That's my dad. He was holding a little boy. Yeah, he just lifted up a little boy that wanted to get a closer look at the pigs. And I think at the very end, Dad was one of the ones that threw up the pigeons and then clapped. Warm. Just love. I mean, it's just really great to see, to see what he was doing. It meant a lot.



Back in Iowa, Mack waited impatiently for her father to return.

Mary Mack: Halfway through my mom was doing her normal mom stuff and baking bread. And one night I came downstairs because I smelled the bread and wanted some hot bread. I told mom that I really missed dad and I wished he would come home. And she said, if you think you miss dad, I miss him even more. And being a sixth grader, you just don't even think about other people's feelings that mom could miss dad as much as I did.

Offspring from the Iowa hogs were accepted into the local livestock herd.


Toshinao Watanabe: The 35 pigs were used as breeding stock at the Yamanashi Livestock Experiment Station and the piglets born from them were shared among local livestock farmers.


Toshinao Watanabe: The large breeds were much more capable than the pigs raised in Japan and attracted strong interest from people involved in pig farming.


It has been estimated that when the last of the Iowa hogs passed away, there were 500,000 offspring with links to the original herd.



Tomoyuki Akao: We have created and maintained a lineage based on the pigs introduced from Iowa in Yamanashi Prefecture. We take good care of our pigs for as long as possible. The center also raises chickens and keeps pigs. The area of the piggery is affectionately called the Iowa Area by the staff.


The Japanese continued crossbreeding the pigs from Iowa and in 1990 announced the development of a new line of hogs marketed under the name Koshu Fujizakura pork. These animals can trace their lineage all the way back to the original 35 delivered in 1960.


Toshinao Watanabe: The name Fujizakura Pork comes from the Prefecture's flower Fujizakura because of the beautiful pink color of its meat.


Toshinao Watanabe: It has grown up to be a representative brand of Yamanashi Prefecture as a safe and secure pork with a good taste.



The act of sending just a few animals in a time of need helped cement a long-lasting relationship. By the end of 1960, Yamanashi had become Iowa's first Sister State, a relationship that has lasted more than six decades.

After Miller returned to Iowa, he would occasionally have guests from Japan come to his farm. The visits would often cause friction with a few members of the community who still held ill feelings against the Japanese for their role in World War II. Even after 15 years, the memories of the terror and tragedy of that war were still fresh.

Mary Mack: Well, there were a lot of people that when the Japanese came to visit the farm they were not happy in this community. They wouldn't have anything to do with, if invited to come or invited to do, no, no, they're Japanese, we don't want anything to do with it.


To celebrate the gift of the 35 hogs, a 1,600-pound brass bell was sent to the people of Iowa in 1962. The bell, which symbolizes peace and friendship, was dedicated on October 17.

James H. Hilton: This is indeed an historic occasion. It is tangible proof of what can be done by friendly, sympathetic understanding of peoples between two great countries.


(bell ringing)

The monument still stands on the grounds of the Iowa Capitol in Des Moines.


Over the years, both countries have had visits by several dignitaries as well as exchanges with hundreds of students and teachers.

(bell ringing)

The relationship has fostered numerous agricultural business deals, which have helped Japan maintain its place as one of the top five export destinations for U.S. meats and grains.

Mary Mack: That's how my dad worked. It was often one-on-one, but it sent out concentric ripples that touched other people.



It's a cold morning in February of 2012. Vice President Xi Jinping, the future leader of China, is greeting some of his old friends from the southeastern Iowa community of Muscatine.


Xi Jinping: -- and we had picnics together.

Xi is here because he visited the community of 24,000 back in 1985. These handshakes can trace a direct line to 1980, when Zi Zhongxun, Hebei's provincial governor at the time, came to Iowa. A Sister State relationship followed in 1983. Zhongxun is Xi Jinping's father.


By 1985, Xi Jinping, who at the time was a low level party official, made his first visit to Iowa as the leader of an agricultural delegation.

Luca Berrone: From July of '83 to May of '85 we hosted I think three or four delegations. So, this is a fairly normal visit that was regarded as an exchange.

Their guide was Luca Berrone, a civil servant with what was then the Iowa Department of Economic Development.


Luca Berrone: Years later we did find out that it was a significant trip. I certainly didn't realize how much of an impact it may have had.

Berrone picked up the group of five men at the Des Moines Airport in a nine passenger van and set out on a two-week journey across the state. They traveled to places like Ames, Cedar Rapids, Sheffield and Muscatine.

Luca Berrone: As we understood it, we were dealing with a delegation that was looking to come to Iowa primarily to look at corn and the production of corn. 27 years later I find out that the actual translation was not feed, but food delegation. We had no budget. So, essentially all of the delegation that visited here were hosted with gifts from the community.

When Berrone was setting up the Muscatine stop, he discovered all the hotels were booked for a conference. He reached out to Sarah Lande, a local community leader and member of the Iowa Sister States organization.

Sarah Lande: I hosted a potluck dinner for them and then we raised money from companies that would host a dinner. So, it was really a people to people gathering.

Lande put together home stays for everyone. Xi stayed in this room that in 1985 was decorated with Star Wars characters.

Sarah Lande: And I think maybe that's one of the things that held in Xi Jinping's memory because the idea of a home stay, they had never heard of that. And the fact we had a potluck dinner here. They couldn't believe that just everybody brought their favorite recipe. Would there be enough food?


The group had a few private moments away from the formal stops on the tour.

Luca Berrone: I had to go to Muscatine to be there at a certain time and didn't know what to do, so we went to the parking lot and just like countless other teenagers in Iowa, showed them how to drive.


During a trip to China in late 2011, Ambassador Branstad, who at the time was Governor of Iowa, invited Xi to return to the Hawkeye State.

Ambassador Terry Branstad: When I got back, I wrote him a thank you note and said, next time you come to America, I'd like to host an old friend's meeting of the people you met in Iowa in 1985. So, this is like October. In January of 2012, I get a call from the Chinese consul general in Chicago. He says, I'm in my car on the way to Des Moines, Vice President Xi wants to come to Iowa, I want to make the arrangements with you to set up that old friend's reunion. So, I called my friend Sarah Lande and I said, would you host it at your home in Muscatine?


By mid-February of 2012, Xi was meeting with President Barack Obama in the Oval Office and early the next morning, he was in Iowa, back at the Lande home.


Sarah Lande: He had a smile and we shook hands and you just could feel that he was as excited to be here as we were, you know, that we were just sort of like a family of friends. And it was at that time he said, I invite you all to be my guests in China. And he said, you were the first people I met in America. To me, you are America.

From there, Xi flew to the Des Moines International Airport. Much had changed since his last trip in 1985. The nine passenger van from 27 years before had been replaced with a motorcade that whisked him to the World Food Prize Building.

Welcome to Des Moines. So good to have you here.

After the signing of a five-year trade agreement with Iowa, he traveled down the street to the Iowa Capitol where Xi had met with Ambassador Branstad for the first time in 1985.

Luca Berrone: And we were all going to welcome him in the Governor's formal office in the Capitol. So, President Xi arrived and there's a line of famous and important Iowans and I'm far away in the corner and President Xi kind of b-lined past everybody and came to me and hugged me, shook my hand and then through an interpreter told me, well Luca, after 27 years you're still good looking. (laughs) And he told me, I'm sure we'll see each other again but maybe next time it will be you visiting me in China. And I said, yeah, sure, I'm sure that's going to happen. Well, about a month later we got an invitation for what has become known as the old friends to visit him in China as part of an arranged tour of the people that he encountered in Iowa during my visit.

The day was capped by speeches, a toast and dinner for 650 guests in the Capitol's Rotunda.


The following day, Xi traveled 20 miles north to meet Rick and Grant Kimberley at their 4,000 acre farm in rural Maxwell, Iowa. The pair was used to having foreign dignitaries come to their farm and usually they would know a bit about their guests in advance. This time, the Chinese had been secretive as to who would be visiting.

Grant Kimberley: We weren't told a lot beforehand. Just say, would you host a group that we will be bringing out?

Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, Ambassador Terry Branstad, Lieutenant Governor, now Governor of Iowa, Kim Reynolds and Iowa's Secretary of Agriculture Bill Northey were all on hand. The Kimberley's spent most of their time standing or sitting right next to Xi.

Rick Kimberley: We understood that we were representing Iowa, we were representing our family, we were representing Iowa, we were representing farmers. And that's kind of how we approached it then.

Grant Kimberley: We always talked about that and how we want to be partners with them when it comes to supplying their agriculture and food needs. And that's why he wanted to come back here. And so, he said, to me, Iowa, you are America. That was one of his comments.

They took Xi on a farm tour. At one point, the future President of China climbed up on one of the Kimberley's tractors.

Rick: When the advance team, especially from China, they said, they didn't want him getting on equipment. They didn't want, of course, someone to slip or something like that. And as we were walking across the yard, he was glancing at it. Now, keep in mind we always used the interpreter, but I saw him looking at it and I just said, do you want to get in the tractor? He didn't wait for the interpreter, he went to the tractor. And those pictures were all over in China, that picture of that tractor.


The relationship between the future President of China and Iowa almost didn't happen. In the late 1970s, Iowa Governor Robert Ray sent Ken Quinn, who became Ambassador to Cambodia in the mid-1990s, to create a Sister State relationship with province in China. Governor Ray wanted to be paired up with the more manufacturing centered Sichuan Province. The Chinese government wanted Iowa to be tied to a region focused on agriculture, much to the disappointment of Quinn and Ray.

Ambassador Ken Quinn: And so, the Chinese side wrote back to us, to Governor Ray saying, oh, we want to propose that Hebei be your Sister Province with Iowa. I think Hebei had like 55 million people and we have 2.5 million in Iowa. And so, the Governor said, I guess we have to do this. And so, in 1983, newly-elected Governor Terry Branstad signed the U.S.-Hebei relationship. So, a few years ago I was at a program with Ambassador Branstad. I told the audience, I said, you know Mr. Ambassador, except for my failure, you wouldn't have been Ambassador to China, Xi Jinping would never have come to Iowa, who knows where, but not here. My hope is that my failure will be acknowledged as having a positive impact. So, everybody laughed.

Xi, who became President of China in 2013, made good on his promise to bring his old friends to China. That year, those with ties to his 1985 visit were invited to the Middle Kingdom. The trip included dinner with Xi and his wife Madame Peng Liyuan.

Luca Berrone: His wife was actually sitting next to me and so I commented to her that I was honored to have her being there as part of our reception. And she told me, oh gosh -- always through an interpreter -- that she would not have missed this opportunity because her husband had told her that his visit to Iowa changed his life.

For the Kimberley's, the farm tour and exchange of gifts in 2012, led to a relationship that continues today. The first inkling of how much impact the father and son had on Xi was revealed during a pre-planned trip to China later that year. Upon arriving, the group's itinerary was changed by the Chinese government to include a meeting with Xi. During that meeting, it became clear that the future President wanted to tap the Kimberley's farming expertise.

Grant Kimberley: He saw Iowa agriculture and then our farm as kind of the example of more types of things he'd like to see adapted to in China over time.

Rick, a fifth-generation farmer, has become a sought after voice for Chinese agriculture.

Rick Kimberley: They just don't have the large area of farms like we do here in the Midwest. There's still going to be smaller, we think, they might have 100 village farmers in this village or more, they will go together to get their smaller tractors, to get their smaller equipment, but use modern type equipment instead of doing everything by hand.

Grant, who represents the sixth generation of Kimberley's working the land in the U.S., is a consultant for the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm located in Hebei Province. By 2017, the Kimberley's were seated on stage at a groundbreaking ceremony for the 300-acre model farm. Located in the shadow of the Great Wall of China, the farm is about 3 hours from Beijing by car or just under an hour via high speed train. With a population of 1.4 billion people, China has 20% of the world's population, but only 9% of the planet's arable land. To feed a hungry nation, Iowa's farmers help fill the gap. However, trade agreements with China have been criticized due to the theft of U.S. intellectual property and numerous human rights violations against groups like the Uyghurs.

In 2018, President Donald Trump imposed tariffs on Chinese goods to stop intellectual property theft.

President Donald Trump: Our country is taking in billions and billions of dollars from China. We never took in 10 cents from China. And out of that many billions of dollars, we're taking a part of it and we're giving it to the farmers because they have been targeted by China.

The move started a trade war where both sides implemented hundreds of billions in tariffs. The result caused sales and prices of agricultural goods to plummet.

Rick Kimberley: It was a tough time. And we could see what our government was trying to do and we understand that. And so, it was just something that we were caught in the middle of. And we were hoping, sooner than later, that things would be settled.

An agreement in January of 2020 has helped restore trade. While shipments of grains like soybeans have surpassed pre-trade war levels, they have yet to reach the numbers agreed to in the trade pact.

Grant Kimberley: The thing that President Xi said here in the U.S., or in Iowa when he came to our farm and I think at the World Food Prize as well, the U.S.-China relationship is like a giant ship at sea. It's very big, it's complicated, it doesn't turn or move very quickly all the time.

Ambassador Terry Branstad: I had always hoped he would be a reformer who would continue the process of opening up and building a closer relationship between us. Unfortunately, I think since he has taken power, he has aligned more often with the hardliners in the Community Party and that his vision is he wants China to be the world leader and displace the United States in that position.

Like many, the Kimberley's are concerned about the relationship between Taiwan and mainland China.

Grant Kimberley: We all know the Taiwan situation is always the political hot potato. So, the importance of trade and the economic relationships between the two countries and then these personal relationships, that kind of keeps maybe that stuff from boiling up too fast. It maybe keeps the Chinese possibly from doing something right away.

Regardless of trade or political disputes, China and Muscatine still maintain a close relationship. There have been numerous student exchanges, the Chinese Symphony Orchestra has played here and Chinese dignitaries continue to visit on special occasions.

Consul General Zhao Jian: The Consul of China will continue to work hard with the local communities, with our friends in Iowa, to continue to grow this friendship and cooperation, to let our people benefit even more from that relationship.


Grant Kimberley: So, we probably have more work ahead of us, but I think we did move the needle and I think we could move the needle further again once things can get more maybe normalized.

Rick Kimberley: I mean, we weren't just trying to put on a show over there. We were there to make friends, to show that Americans are friendly people and we're just all human beings here in this world and try to get along.


No one will ever dare rise tomorrow and say that he is opposed to the Bill of Rights.

Since the early 1900s, there have been several high-profile citizen diplomats. Herbert Hoover, a favorite son of West Branch, Iowa, helped organize several programs to feed the hungry before he was elected 31st President of the United States. His Commission for Relief in Belgium, fed millions in Belgium and Northern France after World War I.


Cresco, Iowa native Norman Borlaug saved more than a billion lives with his plant breeding work in Mexico, India and Pakistan, which led to his receiving the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970.

The honors are far greater than the honor itself.

Like Hoover and Borlaug, there are many Iowans who have answered the call to bridge the gap between nations. Roger Engstrom has spent time in several countries throughout Southern Asia helping farmers one handshake at a time. Engstrom remembers when Nikita Khrushchev came to Iowa in 1959. Khrushchev’s trip included a tour of the Iowa State University campus. Engstrom, who was a student at the time, was standing along the motorcade route.

Roger Engstrom: And they said, you know, you can't show any emotion or anything that shows any friendship or welcoming. We didn't really know what to think of that. We knew all the negative things about Russia and the Soviet Union. I'll never forget when he went past Friley Hall, one of the houses, threw out a big banner on the side that said, Welcome Mr. Khrushchev.


Roger Engstrom: So, there was -- why not treat people like people?


Engstrom joined the Peace Corps in 1961 and, after some training in Ohio, spent two years in India.


Engstrom: I'm thankful that I could help in some ways. In fact, I developed a corn planter that was made in India for 40 some years after that. So, it has been a really good experience as far as I'm concerned.


Engstrom's 60-year pursuit of helping others now continues through an agency called Self-Help International. Participants from the U.S. are sent on two-week assignments in either Nicaragua or Ghana.

Roger Engstrom: I tell people it's like a mini Peace Corps without the two-year commitment. You can do a lot in two weeks, especially now with Internet, you can follow up and I think that follow up is as important as the rest of it.


The 83-year-old has no plans to stop.

Roger Engstrom: If I'm able, I could not be happier doing that. But the main reason is the wonderful people that I meet.


Farmer and political activist Denise O'Brien has been a citizen diplomat since high school when she went to Hiroshima, Japan as a foreign exchange student in 1968. In the years that have followed, her work has taken her from Atlantic, Iowa to places all over the world to help women who work in agriculture.


Denise O'Brien: The next time I went abroad was to Nicaragua in -- I'm thinking it's 1985 or '86, and we went down there after the Sandinista revolution, I guess, takeover, looking at cooperatives, farmer cooperatives. We went out to farms. We went out to the countryside and I was a part of a delegation that met with women and it wasn't so much exchanging farming practices, it wasn't practical stuff, but it was about cooperatives.

O'Brien has spent more than four decades speaking out for others.

Denise O'Brien: I've run for supervisor, I've run for school board, I've run for Secretary of Agriculture and the last time I ran was two years ago for state legislature. And I've never won.

Despite defeat at the ballot box, her continued commitment to citizen diplomacy and women in agriculture led to a tour in Afghanistan as an advisor for the United States Department of Agriculture.

Denise O'Brien: I was 60 at the time and I had started farming when I was 26 or so, so I had a pretty good level of skill.

O’Brien arrived in Afghanistan in April of 2011 and spent a year helping with projects, some of which looked at improving conditions for women. She was often paired up with the Missouri National Guard's Agribusiness Development Team.

Denise O'Brien: So, I would go along on the missions and talk with the farmers and they were always men. I was hoping to be in touch with women. But the women are hidden. I see the women peeking out from behind the doors or the curtains and I see them in burkas, I see them so hidden. And that was then in 2011, 2012. Now is now where they say things are much worse. Maybe something I said along the way to someone gave them the courage to stand up for some rights or gave them some insight to how they could handle moving forward or being where they are.

While most of the patrols were uneventful, one in particular served as a reminder that Afghanistan was a dangerous place.

Denise O'Brien: There was an IED that went off by our tank and it was at the front of the tank. I was in the back of the tank. And I sat there most of the day. The guys that I was with were so good, they come back to the back of the tank and say, are you okay, are you okay? And it's like, yeah, I'm okay. And they kept saying, well you're so calm. And it's like, there's nothing I can do about this. I have to sit in this tank. I was wishing I had a book to read.


O'Brien continues to be busy with both farming and international citizen diplomacy working with, among others, Self-Help International.

Denise O'Brien: And I went to Ghana for two weeks to evaluate the programs that Self-Help was doing there. We went out into the countryside and we saw they're adopting organic practices. And the big issue we were working on was the protein in the sweet potatoes. People say this to me all the time when I get discouraged about being an activist and doing the stuff that I've done, it's that you never know. Maybe one little thing you said would take someone off into a good place or into -- so it's that hope that what you're doing is having an impact.


In the late 1960s, Jerry Perkins from Des Moines, Iowa made up his mind to join the Peace Corps.

Jerry Perkins: Because of a little thing called the Vietnam War. I was going to be drafted and when I graduated from college in June of 1970 I wasn't interested in going. So, I joined the Peace Corps and luckily, I got in. They were looking -- the Peace Corps has always wanted and needed and had a shortage of agricultural volunteers. I was chosen to go to Panama to work in basically a corn, vegetable and hog project.


Perkins' service also took him to Nicaragua before returning to the States in 1972. For the next two decades, he worked as an agribusiness reporter and had a short stint as a lobbyist. During those same intervening years, John Chrystal, Roswell Garst's nephew, was working as a citizen diplomat in the Soviet Union. Chrystal had taken over much of his uncle's work after he passed away in 1977, including an exchange program that sent Iowa farmers behind the Iron Curtain. The banker and politician was even playing a high-level advisory role in Soviet economics and agriculture. By 1991, the Soviet Union collapsed and Boris Yeltsin came to power.

Jerry Perkins: Yeltsin went to Chrystal and said, show us how to be market-oriented when it comes to agriculture. And John was smart enough to know that the collective agricultural system would never lend itself to switching to the free market system that we have, for instance, here in the United States, particularly in Iowa. John Chrystal had asked me if I was interested in working. Of course, as a former Peace Corps volunteer, I was interested in getting involved.


The plan was to create a Russian American Agribusiness Center with one office in Russia and one in Ukraine. Stavropol was chosen as the Russian location because of its Sister City status with Des Moines. Perkins went to Stavropol in 1992 and his family joined him a short time later. Perkins came up with a plan to help teach grain marketing. A nearby former Soviet era collective farm agreed to grow corn and soybeans donated by two Iowa companies. Well before it came time to sell the soybeans, Perkins had already marketed the crop.

Jerry Perkins: When the collective farms who were working with the Agribusiness Center found out that I had sold those soybeans, they strenuously objected. In fact, one of the collective farm fellas said, well I'll burn those soybeans before I'll let them off of my farm.

However, by harvest time, Yeltsin had banned the export of grain from the former Soviet Union. The crop was eventually used domestically to feed livestock in the area.

In recent years, he has become a board member of Self-Help International.


Jerry Perkins: It's hard to know what kind of a long-term impact you have. Small gestures are the most meaningful ones that we have. Meet a museum guard who had taught English in Stavropol and saying to me, you know, we were told that Americans would murder us in our beds. And yet, he said, I meet you and your beautiful family and, he said, I realize you're just like us. And that was, to me, it made all the difficulties in adapting to a foreign culture in a different way, to me that very statement meant that our efforts had been a success if we had been able to show that one man. The problem was at the top. Our leaders saw conflict as being a way to maintain their role in power. And they were sold a bill of goods and they were sold a bill of goods that these people were our enemies, when really, we had far more in common with them than we had differences with them. And if we could just get the leaders out of the way, people will find a way to live in peace.


The next generation is already at work. Sofia Fernandez is a 2023 graduate of Iowa State University. Her eight-week internship in Uganda was just another milestone on a road to a life of public service that includes citizen diplomacy.

Sofia Fernandez: I think that is something that I have just always had in me and I take every opportunity I can to do that, to go share my knowledge, help develop agriculture, use the limited resources that I have to make those big changes and just keep doing that, just continue all my life, use my education to break those barriers.


Born in Cedar Rapids to a Cuban immigrant father, Fernandez grew up in urban Quincy, Illinois, but considers herself an Iowan. She credits her mother, a fourth-generation farmer and agricultural business reporter, with her path to agriculture.

Sofia Fernandez: Growing up I was really involved in 4-H due to my mom because she was super involved in agriculture and she always wanted one of her kids to follow in her footsteps. I have two older siblings who never really took the bait. But she finally got through with me.

Fernandez initially came to Iowa State University to focus on biology.

Sofia Fernandez: And I quickly realized that agriculture was truly where I wanted to be and what I was good and passionate about.

The realization got her to change her degree focus to a double major in global resource systems and agricultural studies.

ISU's Center for Sustainable Rural Livelihoods provided the opportunity for her to spend two months in Uganda. But, for Fernandez, it was more than just checking a box on the way to a college degree.

Sofia Fernandez: I still have not found the words. It was completely life changing for me. And it felt very right. Never once in my time there did I feel uncomfortable. Never once in my time there did I think what am I doing, why am I doing this?


Working side-by-side with the people living in the Kamuli District, Fernandez gathered data for a program designed to mitigate poverty among children and mothers who are pregnant or breastfeeding.

Sofia Fernandez: I was going to these different groups and having questionnaires and focus groups about how these support groups could be improved as well as how to get the men involved. And my favorite part of all of it afterwards was the mothers would dance with me in the local Ugandan way. And something that is special is that they'll put scarves around their waist as they move and they would always come up to me and tie one around me and we would all dance together. They would have me hold their babies and they would sing for me and welcome me and it was so beautiful to witness.


Sofia Fernandez: Between myself and the people I interacted with in Uganda, I would say I have moved the needle. But on a broader scale, I know that it's so much more than that. I know that there is so much more to be done because it's not all about shoveling money into these programs, it's about being there and being present and just taking the opportunity to do what you can and just forming these relationships and taking time to actually listen and talk with them.








Funding for this program was provided by Friends, the Iowa PBS Foundation, as well as generations of families and friends who feel passionate about the programs they watch on Iowa PBS.