Iowa's Corn and Agriculture Industry
How does Iowa corn impact Iowans and the world?
Iowa leads the United States in corn production. The state set a record in 2016 with 2.7 billion bushels, slightly ahead of 2017 and 2018 levels. In 2018, however, the estimated yield set an all-time high at 204 bushels. Iowa's incredibly fertile fields of north central Iowa stretch for miles of corn and soybeans, providing the United States with two of their most valuable exports.
History of Corn and Iowa
Corn has been at the center of Iowa life for almost a thousand years. The ancestors of our modern corn plants first appeared in Central Mexico as a tiny ear wrapped in a tight husk. Through careful cultivation, mostly by American Indian women, the plant eventually evolved into size and shape we know it today. It spread into what is today the American Southwest, along the Gulf Coast and up the Mississippi River and its tributaries until it was a staple of the Upper Midwest and most tribes east of the Mississippi. English colonists first encountered it with the tribes they met on the Atlantic Coast from New England south to Georgia. Corn cultivation had a major impact on the seasonal activities of those who planted it. The year revolved around spring planting and fall harvest, often with the celebration of a successful crop marked with annual festivals. In Iowa pioneer times, farm boys could often attend school only in the winter because their labor was needed at home for planting, cultivation and the fall harvest.
Corn is a giant grass plant and, therefore, easily adapted to the fertile plains of the Iowa prairies. It is incredibly productive as one kernel planted will produce one or two ears with 700+ kernels each. Hybrid varieties developed and spread in the 1920s and 1930s proved so successful that most Iowa farms had adopted them for the end of World War II. Plants grown from hybrids, however, lack the vigor of the parents, creating an annual market and a very profitable hybrid seed industry for the state.
Because corn is bulky, farmers learned early that it is more profitable to feed their corn to livestock, primarily hogs, and then market "the corn" as pork. The Corn Belt corn/hogs economy developed in the late 19th century when the railroad lines connected midwestern farmers with eastern markets. Most of the corn grown in Iowa is what called "field corn." Only one percent of corn planted in the United States is sweet corn. Almost all field corn is used for animal feeds, the production of ethanol as a fuel for automobiles and for manufacturing in products like plastics.
Corn's Effect on Farming Practices
Farm practices have evolved radically since early American Indians and pioneer times. An early technique was to dig a small hole with a hoe and to drop in three to five kernels. Indians often planted beans and squash around the corn to allow the vines to grow up the corn stalks. Weeds were chopped out during the growing season. The labor required kept fields small. The introduction of horse-drawn plows and planters in the mid-19th century allowed one farmer to cultivate much larger fields. The mud and clay scoured ("slid off") John Deere's steel plowshare, saving the time the farmer had to stop and remove the sticky soil. With the tractor in the early 20th century and the mechanical corn picker, field sizes again took a major leap.
Agriculture has been a major occupation of Iowans and corn has been the most significant product. Iowa is truly a product of this incredible grain.
How has farming in Iowa seen continuity and change?
- Average Farm Size in Iowa Map, 1933 (Map)
- Corn Yield Map of Iowa, 1933 (Map)
- Farmer Working a Corn Field with a John Deere Tractor, ca. 1945 (Image)
- Field Workers Harvesting Sweet Corn in Grimes, Iowa, August 1946 (Image)
- Number of Farms and Average Farm Size in Iowa from 1950 to 2014, 2015 (Document)
- Corn for Grain Yield Map of Iowa, 2018 (Map)
- Gulls Following a Farmer on his Tractor, Date Unknown (Image)
What impact did John Deere have on farming in Iowa?
- "The Hawkeye Cultivator," 1863 (Document)
- Gilpin Sulky Plow Patent, 1875 (Document)
- "The Original Steel Plow” and John Deere, 1882 (Document, Image)
- "A Short Interview" with John Deere, ca. 1886 (Document)
- New Deal Gang Plow with Traction Engine Advertisement from John Deere, 1889 (Document)
- Brochure about John Deere's Gilpin Sulky Plow, 1895 (Document)
- Aerial View of the John Deere Tractor Company in Waterloo, Iowa, 1944 (Image)
- Farmer Operating Corn Picker with John Deere Tractor, ca. 1945 (Image)
Where does Iowa corn go and how is it used?
- Flowchart of U.S. Agricultural Supply Chain for Raw and Processed Products, 2009 (Document)
- Flowchart Showing the Uses of Corn, 2009 (Document)
- "Percent of Total U.S. Corn Exports by Country" Graph, 2017 (Document)
- "Compare... Cargo Capacity" Infographic, February 25, 2019 (Document)
What is Iowa Sister States’ role in global agricultural opportunities?
- Iowa Hog Lift to Japan, 1960 (Image)
- Lee Norris' Truck Loaded with Hogs, 1960 (Image)
- Letter from Governor Herschel Loveless to Lee Norris about the Hog Lift, January 18, 1960 (Document)
- Speech by Governor Norman Erbe on the Dedication of the Japanese Friendship Bell, October 17, 1962 (Document)
- Governor of Yamanashi, Japan, Asking Citizens to Help Iowans Suffering from Flood Damage, 1993 (Document)
- "The 1960 Hog Lift," 2001 (Document)
- "Iowa Sister States Agriculture Impact," 2019 (Document)
|Iowa's Corn and Agriculture Industry Teaching Guide|
|Printable Image and Document Guide|
Average Farm Size in Iowa Map, 1933
Corn Yield Map of Iowa, 1933
Farmer Working a Corn Field with a John Deere Tractor, ca. 1945
Field Workers Harvesting Sweet Corn in Grimes, Iowa, August 1946
Number of Farms and Average Farm Size in Iowa from 1950 to 2014, 2015
Corn for Grain Yield Map of Iowa, 2018
Gulls Following a Farmer on his Tractor, Date Unknown
"The Hawkeye Cultivator," 1863
Gilpin Sulky Plow Patent, 1875
“The Original Steel Plow” and John Deere, 1882
"A Short Interview" with John Deere, ca. 1886
New Deal Gang Plow with Traction Engine Advertisement from John Deere, 1889
Brochure about John Deere's Gilpin Sulky Plow, 1895
Aerial View of the John Deere Tractor Company in Waterloo, Iowa, 1944
Farmer Operating Corn Picker with John Deere Tractor, ca. 1945
Flowchart of U.S. Agricultural Supply Chain for Raw and Processed Products, 2009
Flowchart Showing the Uses of Corn, 2009
"Percent of Total U.S. Corn Exports by Country" Graph, 2017
"Compare... Cargo Capacity" Infographic, February 25, 2019
Iowa Hog Lift to Japan, 1960
Lee Norris' Truck Loaded with Hogs, 1960
Letter from Governor Herschel Loveless to Lee Norris about the Hog Lift, January 18, 1960
Speech by Governor Norman Erbe on the Dedication of the Japanese Friendship Bell, October 17, 1962
Governor of Yamanashi, Japan, Asking Citizens to Help Iowans Suffering from Flood Damage, 1993
"The 1960 Hog Lift," 2001
"Iowa Sister States Agriculture Impact," 2019
- A Tale of Two Corns
This two-page handout is from the National Corn Growers Association and it shows how corn from used in 2017.
- Iowa Corn: Exports
This video focuses on the supply and demand of Iowa corn.
- Iowa Nice Guy: Get Educated on Ethanol
This video looks at the uses and production of ethanol in Iowa.
- "Norman Borlaug" on Iowa Public Television's Iowa Pathways
The webpage from Iowa Public Television includes text and images of the famous Iowan, Norman Borlaug, who impacted global agriculture, fed billions of people, won a Nobel Peace Prize and established the World Food Prize.
- "My Family's Corn Farm"
This online book shows text and photos of an Iowa girl whose family grows corn. The story is told from girl's perspective with additional information about farming for adults.
- John Deere 1927 Corn Picker
This one-minute video shows a 1927 John Deere corn picker in action.
- Picking Corn with Horses
This one-minute video shows a farmer picking corn with the use of horses.
- Harvesting Corn with Belgian Horses Pulling a Corn Binder
This three-minute video shows a farmer harvesting corn with the use of Belgian horses pulling a corn binder.
- The Boy Who Changed the World by Andy Andrews
This book tells the story of how Norman Borlaug saved the lives of two billion people but would not have gotten to that point without the very important actions of other people.
- Sweet Corn and Sushi by Lori Erickson
This book tells the story of how Iowa and Yamanashi became sister states.
- Sweet Corn and Sushi Reading by Lori Erickson
The Greater Des Moines Sister Cities Commission presents Lori Erickson reading her book, Sweet Corn and Sushi. The children's book presents the story of the Iowa-Japan Hog Lift, in which the people of Iowa sent hogs and corn to Yamanashi Prefecture in 1960, after two typhoons devastated the region’s agricultural sector. Des Moines and Kofu, the capital of Yamanashi, became sister cities in 1959, one year before the hog lift.
- The Commodity Chain of Corn
This interactive webpage is a visual representation of information on global corn production, sweet corn production, subsidies, ethanol, livestock feed, corn in food and U.S. corn exports.
- "Branstad Asks for Support for Snow-Ravaged Japan Sister State" Article from The Des Moines Register
This article focuses on how Governor Terry Branstad asked Iowans to send money to Yamanashi, Japan, after heavy snow damaged roads and infrastructure in the winter of 2014.
Iowa Core Social Studies Standards (4th 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 elementary-age level and encompass the key disciplines that make up social studies for fourth-grade students.
No. Standard Description SS.4.10. Describe how societies have changed in the past and continue to change. SS.4.12. Using historical and/or local examples, explain how competition has influenced the production of goods and services. SS.4.14. Explain the reasons why the costs of goods and services rise and fall. SS.4.21. Analyze conflicting perspectives on historical and current events/issues. SS.4.22. Infer the purpose of a primary source and from that the intended audience. SS.4.26. Explain how Iowa’s agriculture has changed over time.