• Mike Kilen
  • Tue November 05 2013
  • Posted Nov 5, 2013

The announcements occurred just months apart, by chance.

• An Iowa town known nationally for its seed corn will no longer produce it for the first time in 83 years.

• An Iowa town not known for outdoor recreation would be home to one of the most unique mountain biking trails in the Midwest.

One family — the Garsts — has connections to both Coon Rapids events, in what is not exactly seen as an overalls-for-bike-shorts swap but one that adds hope to a challenged rural Iowa town.

A critical piece of fundraising was secured in October to begin an elaborate network of 35 miles of dirt trails for mountain bikers and horseback riders along the rolling river valley of timber, savanna and prairie at Whiterock Conservancy near Coon Rapids.

Though it will be touted as the finest single-track biking network within 400 miles when it opens next fall, it is hoped that the appeal will spread beyond saddle-sitters to demonstrate how to add luster to rural Iowa.

Maybe it takes replacing corn, the very symbol of Iowa’s productivity, with an emerging champion of frivolity — the bicycle.

Opening up the land

Roswell Garst laun­ched one of the nation’s first hybrid seed corn plants in 1930, and Garst seed became known far and wide. He later made headlines by reaching out to feared communist leader Nikita Khrushchev and hosting him at the Garst family farm in 1959.

The Garsts got out of the seed-corn business in the 1980s, and a series of international agriculture companies have produced seed corn in the old Garst facilities since. The latest, the Swiss company Syngenta, announced in early spring that it will close its seed corn production and supply facility at the end of the year, eliminating more than 30 jobs.

Through the years, Roswell Garst’s son Stephen, an avid hunter, had bought land along the Middle Raccoon River just south of Coon Rapids. When he died in 2005, his wife, Mary, announced this to her five daughters:

“This land is your inheritance. I want to give it away.”

Mary Garst described their reaction as linguistically Midwestern: “You bet!”

Launched in 2006, Whiterock Conservancy would include parcels of the 5,000 acres of family land to be donated every year. Scientists and natural resources officials provided expert advice on transforming the private nonprofit into seven square miles of preserved and restored land along the river, incorporating both sustainable agriculture and public engagement.

Teams of scientists began cataloging the flora and fauna. Native oak savanna and prairie remnants were restored, and the Garsts ran lodging and campgrounds and hosted star-watching parties and barn dances on the property. Agriculture experts worked to demonstrate ecologically friendly farming practices on the land, which help support the conservancy.

But even eight years after its launch, mentioning Whiterock Conservancy brings puzzled looks to many Iowans.

“We are an unusual animal because there aren’t many nonprofit land trusts around for public use,” said Rachel Garst, granddaughter of Roswell Garst. “So it’s our goal to open up White­rock.”

Though it’s long been open to the public for camping, hiking and other outdoor events, few aside from dedicated outdoor wanderers know of it or understand what it is.

Sisters Rachel, Liz and Jennifer Garst, members of the Whiterock board of directors, knew that Iowans connected with trails. Although the state has hundreds of miles of multi-use trails, there are fewer for mountain bikers and equestrians. They worked for five years on fundraising, and secured an $829,000 federal grant. The key piece was finally added in October, a $400,000 grant from Vision Iowa Community Attraction and Tourism that will allow construction to begin toward a fall 2014 completion.

“We need to draw people to our region,” said Doug Carpenter of the Coon Rapids Development Group. “This trail system will do that.”

It’s part of a larger vision for a town that Iowa has heavily invested in. Coon Rapids secured a $1 million Iowa Great Places grant in 2005 and used it to construct a seven-mile trail (paved and cinder) through town that links to Whiterock. The money went towards city park amenities and nearly a dozen other projects. Whiterock has been the linchpin.

“The conservancy is one of things that will keep Coon Rapids alive,” Mary Garst said.

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