EMPIRE TOWNSHIP, MINN. -- Another 30 years or so, another farm. Last time it was Iowa: Coon Rapids, north of Des Moines. This time it is Minnesota: Empire Township, south of St. Paul. The times are markedly different, yet then, now and perhaps always, there is something about the image of a Soviet leader traipsing across a farmyard in the American heartland that seems not only poetic but somehow reassuring.
The first time, on Sept. 23, 1959, it was Nikita Khrushchev, the portly peasant, smelling silage at Roswell Garst's hybrid seed corn operation, debating planting techniques with his gregarious host, bouncing 8-year-old Liz Garst on his knee and taking special delight in the display of potbellies as expansive as his own among the gathering of cornfed Hawkeyes.
It was a tension-releasing scene, but unavoidably played out on a Cold War stage. While coveting the agricultural technology that helped make Iowa the world's marketbasket, Khrushchev could not acknowledge that his state-run farm communes were utter disasters. His words were laced with double-edged sarcasm. "I have seen today how the slaves of capitalism live and they live pretty well," he said after his day with the Garsts. "But the slaves of communism also live pretty well."
Now comes Mikhail Gorbachev, the new world model of a public relations master, for a remake of that long-ago pastorale. With Minnesota Gov. Rudy Perpich at his side and an insatiable international posse of color-hungry scribes watching to see whether a Muscovite shoe gets introduced to an Empire Township cowpie, Gorbachev late this afternoon will visit the 552-acre dairy farm run by Richard and Cecilia Brand in the rolling hills just below the southern sprawl of the Twin Cities.
Gorbachev has the moves of a city slicker, but he will not be out of place at the Brand farm. He knows as much about the subject as Khrushchev did: He grew up in a rural village and his rise to the top includes a period in the late 1970s when the Communist Party assigned him to oversee the nation's agriculture programs -- a thankless and losing proposition that helped open his mind to Western farm marketing concepts and the necessity of reform. He comes without pretense that "the slaves of communism also live pretty well." If they ate a little better, he might not be in so much trouble back home.
His host for the visit, 58-year-old Richard Brand, is a soft-spoken and gracious man who lives only a mile from the house where he was born and works the same corn and hay fields that his father, Anton, plowed for years before him. If family farms are on their way out, nobody told this family. Two of Brand's sons, Greg and John, share the Empire Township farm with him, and another son, Steve, has his own land across the Wisconsin line in Ellsworth.
While modest about his success, Brand takes great pride in his cows -- 240 head of jumbo black and white Holsteins that average 20,000 pounds of milk per cow per year. Brand said he would like the cows "to make a decent impression" on the Soviet visitor, whom he described as "the personality in the world today." Along with straightening out the barnyard and putting a touch of paint here and there on the house, Brand and his family scrubbed the cows Friday in preparation for the big day.
"I don't know how much of a chance I'll get to speak one-on-one with President Gorbachev," Brand said the other morning as a heifer nipped at his pants leg. "But if I do, I'd like to get across to him that he's going in the right direction when it comes to agriculture. This is a personal business. It takes that little extra to be successful, and it's an extra that comes on your own; it can't come from the state."
The Brands, like more than one-third of the people of Minnesota, are of German heritage and have a keen interest in the reshaping of Eastern Europe and the emergence of a unified Germany. Anton Brand, a wounded German veteran of World War I, moved to the United States in 1925 from a village near Stuttgart. His children, including Richard, spoke German at home until they reached school age. Richard Brand remembers the intense pressure he felt as a youngster to repress his heritage during World War II. Several German uncles died in the war. Dozens of relatives still live there in the villages of Weldingsfelden and Hakenrot.
"My relatives are very happy about the reunification," Brand said. "But in their letters they say it will not be as easy as some people thought it might be. There are so many people coming over from the East without jobs." That too is a subject he hopes to broach with the Soviet president, if Gorbachev has not had his fill of the subject after his discussions with President Bush.
What, one might ask, is so special about this fellow Brand that he among all the farmers of Minnesota was chosen for this once-in-a-lifetime visit? Was there anything more to it than the fact that the Brands are successful and gracious hosts whose white-shingled farmhouse sits on a soft knoll graced by the shade of cottonwood trees? There was one other crucial factor, apparently: location. Their farm is among the first that one encounters driving south from the Twin Cities past miles of new shopping strips and subdivisions that advertise "prices starting in the 80s."
It is within a 25-minute drive of the Minneapolis-St. Paul airport and the corporate offices of Control Data, the computer company that initially invited Gorbachev to Minnesota and that he will visit after the farm and before his departure for San Francisco. Larger farms were considered by the U.S. and Soviet advance teams, but they were ruled out because of time and distance.
That is not to say that Gorbachev's visit to the Brands is merely out of convenience. "The Soviets are very positive about the farm," said Paul Ridgeway, chief of the advance operations on the U.S. side. "They love the farm. They keep talking about the farm." Indeed, at one point the American planners scratched the farm visit from the itinerary because of time factors, but the Soviets put it back on and stretched Gorbachev's stay in Minnesota by 50 minutes.
Even before the motorcade carrying Gorbachev and his wife, Raisa, rolls down the dusty dirt road to the Brand farm, the Soviet president will make symbolic contact with Khrushchev's 1959 visit to the Garsts. Among the 144 captains of industry invited to meet with Gorbachev in Minneapolis this afternoon is the president and chief executive officer of the Raccoon Valley State Bank in Adel, Iowa. Her name is Elizabeth Garst. She is the 39-year-old granddaughter of the late Roswell Garst.
Liz Garst was 8 years old when Nikita and Nina Khrushchev came to Iowa. She sat on Khrushchev's knee and curled up in Nina Khrushchev's lap in her grandfather's living room. The thing she remembers most about the occasion was the fight she had with her mother, who insisted that the little tomboy dress up in white anklets and a pink dress. "She won," Garst said. "I looked like an absolute doll."
She also remembers getting to stay home from school, watching a Soviet agent taste the food before the Khrushchevs ate her mother's lunch, and asking Soviets for the medals off their chests. (They gave them to her, but her mother took them away and later lost them.) And she will never forget how comfortable she felt in Mrs. Khrushchev's lap. "She was a mother," said Garst. "You could curl up, no problem."
Since that visit 31 years ago, the Garsts have made quite a name for themselves in U.S.-Soviet relations by developing a network of farmer-exchange programs. Elizabeth Garst runs some of those programs, and she sees the Gorbachev visit in the context of that effort.
"By coming to a farm, Gorbachev is clearly saying that agriculture is critical to him, and that's right," she said. "It is. Whole countries topple if there is not enough to eat. That is Gorbachev's most dangerous problem. The arms race is nothing compared to the food problems he's got. We can and should help him. I think as my grandfather used to say, 'Hungry people are dangerous people.' "