The story of farming is the story of people. People are responsible for raising the crops and animals that end up as food on our plate, fibers in our clothes, and fuel in our cars.


History of Iowa Farmers

Farm "family" at 1850 FarmFarmers in 1850

Most of the people who moved to Iowa in 1850 were farm families. When these families first arrived, most of them had to start from scratch. This means that they would have to build a home for themselves, a barn to store things, and fences around their fields.

Most farms in 1850 averaged 160 acres in size, with farmers cultivating anywhere from 25 to 40 acres. Corn, wheat and potatoes were the three major crops in 1850. Most farmers used their corn crop to feed the pigs that were then sold for profit. Wheat and hogs were cash crops for farmers, and potatoes were a staple with nearly every meal and lasted throughout the winter.

food cooking over open fireUntil pioneer families earned enough money to purchase modern 1850 technology, they relied on older farming methods. For example, women prepared food over an open fire even though wood-burning cookstoves were available.

The majority of people who settled in Iowa in the 1840s and 1850s came from the eastern United States, and were eager to build a multi-room house like they had lived in before coming west. Log houses were temporary structures that the pioneers improved or replaced once the farm was established.

Pioneer families relied on poultry for three major purposes: meat, eggs, and money. Most pioneers who raised pigs built a smokehouse to help preserve the pork. In 1850, barns were of less significance to the farm than in later years. Pioneers used barns to store tools and some crops, rather than to house animals.

Farmers in 1900

interpreter baking rolls with woodburning stoveMany changes in farming occurred between 1850 and 1900. The end of the Civil War led into the Industrial Revolution that caused changes all over the farm. Instead of doing a lot of work by hand, farmers used modern (for the year 1900!) machines to plant corn and cut hay.

Inside the farm kitchen, the wood-burning cook stove and the Mason jar made cooking and saving food much easier.

The large barns were the center of the farm’s daily activities. Barns were used to store hay and oats that were fed to the animals. Animals had stables inside the barn. Cows could be milked inside the barn. Tools and machines were kept inside barns. When farmers harvested hay in June, July, and August, the hay was stored in the barn to feed the animals during the winter months.

horses pull equipment to harvest cropsBy 1900, most farmers used big draft horses for hard farm work. These big, 1,800 pound horses pulled plows through the fields. Then, they pulled the machines that planted the crops and cultivated the fields. At harvest time, they pulled machines that cut the hay and oats, and pulled wagons as corn was picked by hand. They even pulled machines filled with manure into the fields to fertilize the fields!

Corn, oats, and hay were the most common crops on turn-of-the century Iowa farms. Commonly raised farm animals included sheep, chickens, hogs, milk-cows, beef cattle, ducks, geese, and turkeys.


Important Iowans

Henry WallaceHenry A. Wallace

Henry A. Wallace was born on October 7, 1888 near the town of Orient, Iowa. Wallace attended Iowa State College in Ames, IA studying plant genetics and crossbreeding. He discovered and patented a successful strain of corn that produced greater yield, while resisting disease better than normal corn. Wallace experimented with breeding high-yielding hybrid corn. He later founded the highly successful Hi-Bred Corn Company, and the company later became Pioneer Hi-Bred. Wallace also served as the 33rd Vice President of the United States to Franklin D. Roosevelt.

George Washington CarverGeorge Washington Carver

George Washington Carver was the first African American student at Iowa State University studying Botany. He completed his Bachelor of Science degree, and then stayed for his master’s degree. His graduate studies included intensive work in plant pathology at the Iowa Experiment Station. He researched alternative crops to cotton, such as peanuts, soybeans, and sweet potatoes which also aided nutrition for farm families. In 1904, he discovered that soybeans were a valuable source of protein and oil.

John Froelich

Photo courtesy of the John Deere archives.

John Froelich

John Froelich was the first to invent the gas powered tractor. He was born in Iowa and had a job at a grain elevator and a mobile threshing service. His invention was a success and led to many improvements in the model.

Norman BorlaugNorman Borlaug

Norman Borlaug was an American biologist, humanitarian and Nobel Peace prize winner. He was born and grew up in Cresco, Iowa. Historians estimate that Borlaug’s work saved the lives of approximately one billion starving people during the 1960s.


farm familyFarmers Today

Imagine a farm family today. What does a typical farm family look like? What is their life like?

The answer: they are just like everyone else!

Today, less than 2% of the people in America are living on farms and are actively farming. These farmers are able to feed all of the rest of the United States, and people in other countries too!

According to information from the 2012 Agricultural Census conducted by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Iowa’s farms look like this:

  • farmers pose in front of tractor88,637 farms were operating in Iowa.
  • 81,529 farm operators were male, and 7,108 were female.
  • 47,949 people listed farming as their main job, while the other 40,688 has second jobs.
  • 75,786 farm operators have been farming more than 10 years.
  • 57.1 is the average age of Iowa’s farm operators.
  • 51,806 farm operators were at least 55 years old.


Meet a Farm Family

Meet the Peterson Farm Brothers. They are siblings who farm together with their parents near Assaria, KS. They produce entertaining and educational videos about the daily life of a farmer as well as educational material about farming.

Meet the Maassens, who have a dairy farm near Maurice, Iowa.

Meet Stephanie Dykshorn, whose family has a dairy farm near Ireton, Iowa. And go on a tour of their farm in this video from Midwest Dairy.

Meet Cassie Bohnert, whose parents run a dairy farm near Moline, Illinois, gives a tour of her family’s farm and explains how milk gets from the cow to the store.



Acre: A common measure of area, 1 acre equals 4,840 square yards. 1 acre is the size of a football field.

Cultivate: Prepare and use land for crops or gardening.

Cash crop: Any crop that is considered easily marketable; for example wheat or cotton.

Industrial Revolution: A period of major progress that took place during the late 1700s and early 1800s. During this time many new machines were created.