On January 18, 1961 the Central Party Committee approved a plan proposed by Nikita Khrushchev on the total restructuring of Soviet agriculture. This project primarily focused on the mass introduction of corn and other “wonder-plants”, such as peas and sugar beets. Amazed by their productivity on his visit to the United States, Khrushchev was sure they would make up for the shortages of the agricultural produce in the Soviet Union. However, unwise cultivation of crops unable to survive the harsh climates soon caused massive failures, seriously crippling the already limp Soviet agriculture.
In the late 1950s Khrushchev started a major virgin land program to reclaim farming fields to increase crop output. This was the way Khrushchev tried to fight the disastrously low crop yields. The strategy was flawed from the very beginning: instead of thinking of new ways to work the already reclaimed lands of the central and southern regions which, if cultivated properly, could triple their crops, the Soviet government wasted money and labor forces on northern regions, which was a potential failure from the beginning. The farming was poor due to obvious shortages of agricultural machinery and a lack of professional agricultural personnel. In compliance with the new plan, the already scarce human resources had been transferred to the virgin lands. There were no scientific estimations of the possible outcome; as a result, the entire campaign turned into an act of folly.
The utopian idea of planting corn across the Soviet Union, regardless of the fact that it was only growing in warm climates, came as part of the virgin land plan. The lands occupied by corn and other “wonder-plants” were incredibly vast, while the relatively complex process of cultivation was dumbed down to basic stages of farming – plough then sow. The so-called “high crop” plants were supposed to not only substitute for the grain but were also treated as “two in one” products – food for people and for livestock.
The faith in corn and its qualities was so strong that seedings pervaded the entire country and exceeded the average by ten times. The corn was planted everywhere with no regard for its sowing conditions, even as far as the Arctic Circle. It was respectfully dubbed as the Tsarina of the Fields, while peas were the Tsar.
Khrushchev’s reports and speeches at the time were bursting with examples of the leading country’s agronomists who were reaching higher and higher results in harvesting corn. He, however, never mentioned the labor of actual peasants as the major driving force of agriculture, only praising the party for pushing the results up and up. There was no talk about bettering conditions for the peasants or updating the agricultural equipment. Those who were objectively interested in the increase of crops and, what’s more important, were professionally prepared, were simply asked to stay away from the process.
Khrushchev’s love for corn emerged during his visit to the United States where he toured a farm owned by Roswell Garst, a model Iowa farmer Khrushchev had met at the agricultural exhibition in Moscow in 1955. Garst had fervently described the many advantages of corn cultivation and how the American experience “would help bring Soviet agriculture to a new level”.
Garst and Khrushchev cliqued immediately and the farmer invited the Soviet leader to come over to the States and observe his farming methods, which Khrushchev did in 1959. The amazing crops seasoned by Garst’s eloquence made an extraordinary impression on Khrushchev.
Ten months later, in December of 1961, Khrushchev made another speech where he once again praised the value of peas, sugar beets and corn. However, though it was logical to stop at mentioning the results of the ten-month campaign, Khrushchev didn’t say a word, busy setting more goals. In reality, the results were an objective proof that the results were very poor and in 1962 the amount of the corn crop amounted to 3.36 tons per hectare instead of the planned 20 tons.
The corn didn’t manage to become the “Tsarina of the fields” as had been advertised. It only aggravated the already difficult conditions of agriculture, leaving it to the peasants to deal with the devastating effects of this reckless affair.