Conrad Kramer
Conrad Kramer
May 9, 2013

Coon Rapids

Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids has just hired Conrad Kramer as executive director.

An experienced non-profit land trust director, Kramer comes to Iowa from the Mojave Desert of Southern California, where he ran a foundation in support of the Anza-Borrego Desert State Park. Previously, Kramer served as executive director of Teton Regional Land Trust in Idaho, and led a non-profit reforestation project in Indiana.

"I am thrilled to be joining Whiterock, because I have never seen a land trust with such a comprehensive vision of multi-purpose land use. Whiterock's combination of biodiversity, sustainable agriculture, and low-impact public use is truly special. The land base is gorgeous, and Coon Rapids' agricultural history is truly unique," Kramer said. "Given Iowa's scarcity of public lands, Whiterock will play a special role in providing a place where all Iowans can truly engage with their unique rural heritage and the outdoors."

The Whiterock Conservancy environmental project, based on former Garst land-holdings, under newly hired professional management, gives Coon Rapids alternative eco-tourism potential. This will be especially so as Whiterock moves to construct a premier regional mountain-bike trail.

The town of Coon Rapids has long been synonymous with the Garst name, and the Garst name has been synonymous with corn. With Syngenta's recent announcement that it is closing the Coon Rapids hybrid corn processing plant, the town's 83-year seed corn history now appears to be drawing to a close, Whiterock officials said in a news release.

The strong seed-corn connection started in 1930, when an innovative and rambunctious Iowa farmer named Roswell Garst helped launch one of the nation's first hybrid seed corn plants. In 1959, Garst rose to worldwide fame when, acting as a private citizen, he hosted a farm visit from Nikita Khrushchev, the greatly feared communist dictator of the Soviet Union.

Garst, who liked to point out that hungry people are dangerous people, called his homespun approach "Peace Through Corn."

The Coon Rapids seed-corn-processing facilities left Garst family hands in the early 1980s, but over the last 30 years the Garst brand continued as the plant was variously owned by larger international agribusiness firms including ICI and most recently Syngenta.

The Garst legacy of agricultural innovation will, however, continue, under the auspices of a nonprofit land trust called Whiterock Conservancy.

Roswell's son Stephen Garst had, over the years, purchased extensive, rolling lands along the Middle Raccoon River that he used for farming, cattle ranching and hunting. Steve was also one of Iowa's first conservation leaders. In 2005, his widow, sister and five daughters announced their decision to donate 5,000 acres to the newly formed Whiterock Conservancy land trust.

The non-profit Whiterock has a three-part mission of sustainable agriculture, environmental restoration and public engagement with the landscape. In 2005, based largely on the rural tourism potential of this vast landscape, then-Gov. Tom Vilsack named Coon Rapids one of the first three "Iowa Great Places."

The initial private land gift launched Whiterock Conservancy, but it is a dedicated group of staff, donors, and volunteers that are now developing the vision of what could be done with this massive land gift, and bringing it to fruition.

Efforts are under way to restore over 1,000 acres of native oak savanna and prairie remnants; to model and demonstrate innovating cropping and grazing techniques; and to encourage public engagement with the landscape via agricultural history, astronomy, nature programing, geology education, rural arts, canoeing, lodging rental, and event hosting.

Among other lodgings, the nonprofit Whiterock owns the historic Garst Farm visited by Khrushchev, where it offers accommodations in the Garst Farmhouse.

Most significantly, after five years of internal planning, Whiterock is now also poised to develop over 30 miles of soft-surface, sustainable internal trails for hikers, equestrians, and mountain-bikers. This $2 million trail system (for which $1.2 million has already been raised) will make Coon Rapids a major outdoor recreation center, particularly for Midwestern mountain-bikers.