by Emme Troendle
Editor’s Note: This is the third article in a series highlighting significant women in the Simmental industry.
The first woman to serve on ASA’s Board of Trustees, the late Mary Garst, was one of many influential women in the Simmental industry.
A pioneer in and out of the pasture, the late Mary Garst, Coon Rapids, Iowa, is remembered for being a woman ahead of her time. Garst, the mother of six children, managed her husband’s family cattle business; served as the first woman on multiple local, state, and national boards; and participated in many women’s organizations.
Born in 1928, Garst attended college during World War II at Carleton College in Northfield, MN, later marrying her second cousin Steve Garst, and attending graduate school in history at Stanford University. After school, the couple returned to Steve’s family farm, a hybrid corn operation and cattle business. The farm was started by Steve’s father, Roswell Garst, a name remembered for his advancements in hybrid corn production and bringing Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev to Iowa to tour the Garst Company farm in 1959. For Roswell, the cattle were a byproduct of the corn, and many ranch managers had come and gone before Mary took over the business, handling the genetic selection for 4,000 cows, nutritional decisions, and cattle sales. She narrowed breeding to a 45-day period and collected performance data on the entire herd. Most notably, Garst started utilizing computers for data collection. Sarah Garst, Mary’s daughter, explains, “My mother transformed our cattle herd. She started crossbreeding, and the cows were heat detected for only one or two periods. If the cow or heifer didn’t breed, it was culled. As a result, we had a better quality cattle to sell and feed out.” In 1977, The Garst Company was awarded the Beef Improvement Federation Commercial Breeder of the Year, an award recognizing Garst for leadership and performance testing. She was the first woman elected to ASA’s Board of Trustees, serving from 1978-1980, and was the first female president for the Iowa Simmental Association. Playing an active role in many other organizations, Garst served on the board of directors for the Iowa Beef Improvement Association, Chicago Federal Reserve, International Harvester, Burlington Northern Railroad, and Northwestern Bell Telephone.
As women’s roles were changing in the US, Garst was at the forefront in agriculture, encouraging growth. Today, she remains a vital piece of the beef industry’s history. “She encouraged women to be strong and to be a force to be reckoned with,” says Liz Garst, describing her mother. “She engaged everyone around her to think and to use their brains.” Garst was quoted in a 1992 publication by Loise R. Noun, More Strong-Minded Women, where she shares her transition to managing the cattle operation:
“In 1969 when my youngest child started school, I got involved in the cattle operation. It was something that I could do. I could see that some kind of organization was needed. I had also learned enough about genetics from just listening to people talk about corn to have an idea that the same principles could be applied to cattle. “As I got into the cattle business I began to think it should be computerized because nobody can really milk all of the significance out of this collection of data without a computer . . . I got the records in such a shape that I could understand them but they got so complex that nobody else could. I did this all for two years without pay because farm wives do not get paid. Then in 1971, I thought, this is ridiculous. It is not good for me because I don’t take myself seriously enough and it is not good for the men in the business not to pay me because they don’t value how good I am getting to be at this job. So I went, not unpleasantly but firmly saying, ‘You’ve got to pay me a real wage because I am doing a real job and I will be truly responsible for this operation.’ A lot of times in the future I regretted that. There is protection in being an unpaid volunteer. It’s a lot more comfortable. “I started out first with just the breeding records and then I started into cattle sales work because we developed cattle good enough for other people to be buying them for breeding purposes. Before that, we just had terminal cattle . . . Next, I got into advertising and then I had to get into managing the cowboy crews because I now knew exactly how I wanted it done. When I relied on someone else to do it, they couldn’t see why it was important to do it my way. By 1972 I was running the whole operation fulltime.”