Agriculture in a Global World
How has agriculture in the American Midwest evolved over time?
For thousands of years, Iowa’s rich soil has supported many different people who have called "the land between two rivers" home. Native American women planted corn, beans and squash in carefully cultivated gardens along Iowa’s rivers. When the sweet corn ripened in early August, the tribe celebrated. For the Meskwaki in Tama County, it was called the “the Green Corn Dance” and later became the starting point for the tribe’s famous pow wow.
Iowa's First Settlers Profit from Farmland
The eastern United States is mostly covered in forests. Pioneers moving westward knew how to carve out farms among the trees but did not have experience on the treeless Iowa prairies which covered 85 percent of central and western Iowa. They needed to learn how to plow up for the first time the tough roots that held the soil in place. The first settlers often planted wheat as their primary cash crop but discovered that corn was more profitable. While it was hard to market bulky wagon loads of grain, corn could be fed to hogs which could be driven to markets or butchered in the winter and transported frozen on sleds. Meat brought a better price than the grain itself.
In the second half of the 19th century, 1850 to 1900, Iowa farmers experience the rural side of the Industrial Revolution. John Deere, an Illinois blacksmith, invented a steel plow that would clean off the sticky prairie soil, unlike earlier iron plows that clogged and had to be scraped frequently. Horses replaced oxen as a source of power with the invention of new machinery. Hay rakes, mowers, corn planters and multi-row plows allowed one farmer to cultivate more acres than ever before. Production skyrocketed. When barbed wire allowed farmers to keep their animals contained, they began to import purebred livestock from Europe. They held fairs to compare their efforts in quality seed and animals. Refrigerated railroad cars permitted beef and pork to be slaughtered in Iowa and shipped to the growing cities of the east.
Science Propels Agricultural Practices Forward
After WWI (1917-1918), the gasoline engine began to make its way onto the farm to replace horses as the primary source of power. Tractors did not need to be fed when they were not working nor did farms have to devote fields to the cultivation of oats. Tractors came in larger and larger sizes and could plow and harvest fields much faster than horses could. At the same time, scientists began to promote the advantages of hybrid seed to produce bigger and better crops. Iowa-born Henry Wallace, later to become secretary of agriculture and vice president, was a co-founder of Pioneer Hybrid Seed that helped boost corn production across the Midwest. Iowa State University was a leader in the development of herbicides, pesticides and fertilizers and teaching farmers how to use them that also contributed to a major boost in Iowa farm production. The ISU Extension Service placed a farm specialist and home economist in every Iowa county to make the entire state a classroom and to improve farm life.
Beginning in the 1960s, science jumped to a new level with new discoveries in genetics. Until then, farming had always been about improving the surroundings in which a plant grew — insuring adequate sunlight and water, eliminating weeds and improving the quality of the soil. Genetic engineering was something new. It went into the plant itself and gave it new directions on how to grow and to resist disease. Iowa’s Norman Borlaug took the new agriculture improvements to impoverished nations around the world. He was a leader of what has been called “the Green Revolution” to increase the world’s food supply. His work is estimated to have saved the lives of one billion people from starvation. In 1970, he was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.
Farm Families Decline in the Late 20th, Early 21st Century
Agriculture has faced many problems with these new developments. In the 20th century, 1900 to 1999, farmers could often produce more than the market could sell at a satisfactory price, and surpluses developed. When prices plunged as a result, farmers planted even more to maintain their incomes, creating even bigger surpluses. The federal government in the 1930s instituted programs to try to keep up prices for those farmers that would agree to reduce their production. In both WWI and WWII, farmers were encouraged to produce as much as they could to support the U.S. and its allies. Adjusting to peacetime created problems both times in the post-war world. Demand for farm products was strong in the 1970s, and once again, farmers geared up for top production. They borrowed money to buy larger equipment and paid more money to buy more land. In 1980, farm and farmland prices collapsed suddenly and many farmers could not meet their financial obligations. Many of them lost their farms. The small-town banks around the state that had lent them money also felt hard times. Many of them filed for bankruptcy. Merchants in small towns saw their sales drop, and many were forced to close their doors. The early years of the 1980s were called the "Farm Crisis," the worst times Iowa had experienced since the Great Depression of the 1930s.
Since the first wave of new machinery in the late 1800s, farms have grown in size and the number of farms has decreased. Many rural Iowa counties had their highest population figures in the early 20th century, and have witnessed a gradual decline ever since. Losing students, rural schools were forced to consolidate into larger districts. Farm representation in the Iowa Legislature, once dominating everything else, was forced to yield seats to the growing urban cities.
On the other hand, the growth in numbers of families living in the country who are not farmers has grown. With good roads, cities now attract daily commuters from surrounding counties and beyond, blurring the lines between urban and rural. By any measure, however, Iowa agriculture is a power force in the economy and in the source of food for a hungry world.
How has farming in the American Midwest changed over time?
- Letter from Giles S. Thomas to his Family, July 23, 1876 (Document)
- "The Crop Outlook" Newspaper Article, June 30, 1906 (Document)
- "1913 Farm Crops and their Value" Newspaper Article, May 14, 1914 (Document)
- Farm Family in the United States, between 1915 and 1923 (Image)
- Stacks of Sugarcane in Emmet County, Iowa, December 1936 (Image)
- USDA Crop Production 2015 Summary, January 2016 (Document)
- Lush Soybean Field on Dean and Julie Folkmann's Hog Farm in Newhall, Iowa, August 8, 2016 (Image)
- Rolling Country Road and Crops in Benton County, Iowa, August 8, 2016 (Image)
In what ways has Iowa played a leading role in agriculture on a global scale?
- Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev Visits Farms, Research Center in Iowa, 1959 (Video)
- Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev Visits Iowa, September 23, 1959 (Image)
- Iowa Hog Lift to Japan, 1960 (Image)
- "Food for Freedom" Church Women United Letter, 1966 (Document)
- "An Essay on the 80’s Des Moines: A World Food Center for the Nation," November 26, 1982 (Document)
- S.2250: Congressional Tribute to Dr. Norman E. Borlaug Act of 2006, December 14, 2006 (Document)
- "Vilsack Commemorates 50th Anniversary of the Iowa 'Hog Lift' in Yamanashi" Article, April 8, 2010 (Document)
- "Diplomatic Farmers: Iowans and the 1955 Agricultural Delegation to the Soviet Union," 2013 (Document)
Letter from Giles S. Thomas to His Family, July 23, 1876
"The Crop Outlook" Newspaper Article, June 30, 1906
"1913 Farm Crops and their Value" Newspaper Article, May 14, 1914
Farm Family in the United States, between 1915 and 1923
Stacks of Sugarcane in Emmet County, Iowa, December 1936
USDA Crop Production 2015 Summary, January 2016
Lush Soybean Field on Dean and Julie Folkmann's Hog Farm in Newhall, Iowa, August 8, 2016
Rolling Country Road and Crops in Benton County, Iowa, August 8, 2016
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev Visits Farms, Research Center in Iowa, 1959
- Video resource
Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev Visits Iowa, September 23, 1959
Iowa Hog Lift to Japan, 1960
"Food for Freedom" Church Women United Letter, 1966
"An Essay on the 80’s Des Moines: A World Food Center for the Nation," November 26, 1982
S.2250: Congressional Tribute to Dr. Norman E. Borlaug Act of 2006, December 14, 2006
"Vilsack Commemorates 50th Anniversary of the Iowa 'Hog Lift' in Yamanashi" Article, April 8, 2010
"Diplomatic Farmers: Iowans and the 1955 Agricultural Delegation to the Soviet Union," 2013
- Living History Farms Learning Fields
This web exhibit offers lesson plans about Iowa agriculture and additional resources to use in the classroom about the harvesting of crops and livestock in the state.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (7th Grade)
Listed below are the Iowa Core Social Studies content anchor standards that are best reflected in this source set. The content standards applied to this set are middle school-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for seventh grade students.
- SS.7.13. Identify social, political, and economic factors that can influence our thoughts and behavior.
- SS.7.24. Analyze connections among historical events and developments in contemporary global issues.