For Liz Garst, the business manager of the Garst family businesses and a 2019 Women of Influence honoree, the crossroads of agriculture and conservation are more than a career; they’re a family tradition. Her grandfather, agricultural innovator Roswell Garst, famously hosted Nikita Khrushchev at their family farm during the Soviet statesman’s 1959 tour of Iowa. Garst says the importance of the field was impressed upon her from a young age.

“Our elders were always very interested in getting us started in agriculture,” Garst said. “Land was purchased for us to manage, and the first business decision I ever made, at 18, was to reinvest the profits from the land into more terracing to protect the soil.”

For 50 years, no-till farming, terracing and waterways were centerpieces of the Garst family farms’ approach, and that emphasis placed on protecting the soil played a large role in what Liz Garst describes as her “personal crusade” for soil health.

“In Iowa, we have already lost half of our topsoil and are projected to lose the other half at a very fast clip,” Garst said. “For most people, it’s something they’ve never thought about, but is almost as existential a threat as climate change itself.”

In 2004, Garst founded the Whiterock Conservancy in Coon Rapids, gifting 5,500 acres of land  to the nonprofit land trust whose mission includes educating the public on sustainable agriculture and conserving the natural landscape. After serving as Whiterock’s executive director for its first two years, Garst now is on the land trust’s board of directors and often uses the space to host local and national politicians and educate them on the issues facing Iowa’s agricultural system.

“Most politicians arrive having some understanding of climate change, and while water quality is the biggest issue in Iowa, my main mission is to get them to pay attention to soil quality,” Garst said. “While water quality can be recovered, topsoil cannot, and as the filter of the Earth, we are losing it and degrading it very rapidly right now.”

Along with educating the public, Garst’s goals include seeing a major restructuring of the federal farm bill and the implementation of a conservation plan at the state level.

“I visited eastern Portugal several years ago, in what was formerly the breadbasket of the Roman Empire, and all that is left is rock,” she said. “No agriculture, no people, because there was no topsoil. I woke up and saw our future and had to do something about it.”

Garst's Areas of Influence:

Founded Whiterock Conservancy in order to educate the public on sustainable agriculture.
Engages local and national politicians on the importance of soil health.
Is a voice on soil quality policy in Iowa.