Dan Gudahl, executive director of Whiterock Conservancy, has previously worked in Minnesota and Arkansas.
Dan Gudahl, executive director of Whiterock Conservancy, has previously worked in Minnesota and Arkansas.

July 11, 2017

Coon Rapids

Roughly 13,000 years ago, a giant frozen mass known as the Wisconsian Glacier carved its way through North Dakota, South Dakota, Minnesota and Iowa, changing the landscapes of the states.

The glacier’s migration was responsible for the creation of the Des Moines Lobe, one of the seven major landform regions of Iowa that define the state’s geographical cosmetics. On the western tip of the lobe, in Coon Rapids, sits Whiterock Conservancy, a public 5,500-acre scenic oasis of savannas, rolling pastures, prairies, crop ground and fishing ponds.

The conservancy was established as a not-for-profit venture in 2004 by the descendants of renowned American farmer and seed company executive Roswell Garst, who purchased much of the land before his passing in 1977.

The land is home to the historic Roswell and Elizabeth Garst Farmstead, which hosted Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev in 1959. According to Daniel Gudahl, executive director of Whiterock, The Garst family developed the area in the spirit of maintaining the family’s values, which included philanthropy, ecology and agriculture.

“(The Garst family) thought ‘How do we honor our family legacy? As people who love Iowa, hunting and wildlife, how do we build something in a way that will benefit future generations of Iowans after we move on?’ So, the family decided to open it to the public and make it available for people to enjoy nature and have fun,” Gudahl said.

Gudahl was hired as director of Whiterock in January. Before his appointment, Gudahl was working in the Philippines for Winrock International, a not-for-profit social, agriculture and economic-development organization that aims to “empower the disadvantaged, increase economic opportunity and sustain natural resources across the globe,” according to the organization’s website. Winrock is currently active in 12 countries across Asia, Latin America and Africa.

“I decided it would be better not to travel so much but still do the same thing I was doing,” Gudahl said. “I would just do it on a statewide scale, instead of an international scale.”

Gudahl was born and raised in Blue Earth County, Minnesota. His family owned a farm on a 3-mile stretch that housed 11 other farming families.

“I was of the generation when all of the farms were being consolidated,” Gudahl said. “I don’t think there are any farm families on that 3-mile stretch. We had a mixed family farm, so we grew corn, soybeans, hogs, and we always had our own eggs, milk and meat. That was just how we did things back then.”

Gudahl attended high school in Madelia, Minnesota. Upon graduation, Gudahl attended Augustana University in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, for three years. He would transfer to the University of Minnesota and finished with a bachelor’s degree in biology. Gudahl served in the Peace Corps for three years, going for agricultural education in the Philippines after receiving his degree. Following those three years in the Peace Corps, he returned to the United States to attend Cal Poly San Luis Obispo on California’s Central Coast to receive a master’s degree in international agriculture.

“I’ve been doing agriculture and development work my whole life,” Gudahl said. “After receiving my master’s, I worked as a volunteer coordinator for an Arkansas-based global nonprofit called Heifer International for 13 years. That dealt a lot with livestock on an international context.”

Following his time with Heifer, Gudahl collaborated with Winrock International and the U.S. Department of Agriculture on agricultural-development projects in the Philippines.

“My goals in life have been not to wear a tie and not to commute,” Gudahl said. “I commuted for more than 20 years. I didn’t want to do that anymore.”

Gudahl said that he had become aware of the opening at Whiterock through an internet posting. He was giving a presentation for the World Food Prize, an award ceremony in Des Moines that recognizes contributions in any field involved in the world food supply, in January when he received the job offer.

Gudahl described Whiterock as a “three-pronged” experience, meaning that visitors can expect a fulfilling experience in agriculture, ecology and wildlife. The conservancy features farmhouses for leasing and renting, campgrounds for recreational vehicles and tents and several trails for mountain bikers and horse riders. The property also features farms developed in World War II that are still actively growing corn, soybeans and cattle.

“(Whiterock) is involved with committees that (encourage) better conservation practices that will lead to cleaner water in the Iowa rivers, especially in the Middle Raccoon River,” Gudahl said.

He added that Whiterock is also involved with the Iowa Monarch Conservation Consortium, a group that focuses on conservation efforts for monarch butterflies.

In April, Iowa lawmakers passed legislation that defunded and dismantled the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. The Leopold Center sponsored research on topics such as manure management, livestock grazing, cover crops, alternative conservation practices, biomass production, soil health and local food systems development, according to the Des Moines Register.

“(The Leopold Center) has representation on our board of directors. It’s our opinion that the Leopold Center should get more funding, not less,” Gudahl said.

Despite the number of services and activities offered by Whiterock, Gudahl would like to implement regular programming for agricultural and ecological education. He said that he will look to remodel many of the barns and farmhouses in an effort to give visitors “a real farmhouse experience.”

“Running a nonprofit is always a challenge,” Gudahl said. “At any nonprofit you work for, you’re always trying to figure out what the next thing is to get people interested. We would like to see more utilization of our biking and equestrian trails, as we are one of the only conservancies that regularly maintains our trails.”

Gudahl resides in Coon Rapids with Ana, his wife of 37 years. Gudahl said he met Ana during his time in the Peace Corps. She worked as a language instructor at the time. His daughter, Jennifer, is married and lives in New York. Jennifer also met her husband in the Peace Corps. When he’s not in the office, Gudahl can be found gardening at his home.

“(Whiterock) is like how grandpa’s farm used to be. Right now you go to an active farm in Iowa, you see a lot of corn and soybeans, and there’s not a lot to do beside go to a house,” he said. “At Whiterock, you can enjoy nature, see agricultural practices and camp out and have fun while being part of the atmosphere. We’re going to continue doing a great job of keeping the place up.”