The Science and Technology of Agriculture

Throughout history, scientific and technological advances have greatly impacted the agriculture industry. Early farmers improved their crop production by inventing the first hoes. Today, farmers improve crop production through the use of global positioning systems (GPS). How did these changes happen? How did people learn about new ideas? How have these ideas changed farming methods?

Early advances were shared by word of mouth. As new ideas were tried and applied to growing crops and livestock, they were shared and passed to the next generation as parents taught their children. Neighboring tribes exchanged ideas with one another and with new settlers. In more recent times, scientists studying at universities devote their lives to research and development of farming products and practices. Iowa farmers and agricultural scientists have benefited and contributed to the ever-evolving science of agriculture. 

New Ideas and Inventions

One milestone in the evolution of technology in Iowa occurred with the completion of rail lines across the state. By 1870 transportation had been greatly expanded—which made it easier for farmers to market their products outside the Midwest. Transportation advances greatly impacted the life of an Iowa farmer. Another event that affected farm life was the commercial production of barbed wire. As the land became more settled and there were fewer and fewer acres of open prairie, farmers needed a way to keep their own cattle at home. Barbed wire was the answer. Instead of grazing on open prairie, cattle were fenced in the farmer's own field and fed with corn. This allowed Iowa farmers to transition from cattle grazing to cattle raising. 

New Ways of Farming

By the latter part of the 19th century farmers had learned to diversify their crop production and to raise livestock for profit. Iowa farmers had learned the value in planting corn and feeding it to fatten their livestock. 

Advances in farm machinery production changed the way farmers worked. They were able to cover more land at a faster pace; and as manufacturers added seats to farm machinery, farmers found some relief from their backbreaking labors. 

The development of better corn seed is one of the biggest improvements in the past 100 years. Farmers once shelled the kernels from the longest and best looking ears from the harvest and planted those kernels the next spring. However, plant scientists like Henry A. Wallace began experimenting with ways to produce even better seed. They learned how to use the pollen from one variety of corn to fertilize another variety to produce a hybrid. The new variety grew ears that were better than either of its "parents." In the 1930s many farmers began buying hybrid corn seed. Today nearly all corn planted in the United States and much of the rest of the world is some hybrid variety. 

Spreading New Ideas

Early in Iowa's settlement by European farmers, a number of institutions were established to encourage agricultural advances. State and county fairs were held and became show places for the best in all areas of agriculture. They helped spread the news about new ideas and methods. And they encouraged farmers to develop new products and new ways of doing their work.

Interests in agricultural advancement also was reflected in the early provision for a state agricultural college and model farm to promote better farming techniques. The formal program of instruction began at Ames in 1869, and the college eventually developed into a nationally recognized leader in scientific agricultural advancement. The college developed extension services, education for people who are not enrolled as students, to provide up-to-date assistance for women and men on Iowa's farms. They learned about soil conservation, corn seed selection and cultivation, crop rotation and manure management. 

The invention of radio and television made it possible for farm families to learn about new ideas. They learned about new kinds of technologies such as food-freezing processes that revolutionized food storage. They also learned about hybrid seed that boosted crop production, and soybeans that became a major crop addition. New ways of spreading information allowed farm families to hear about soil conservation programs also. They learned about cattle and hog breeding which in turn improved the livestock industry.

Conserving Resources

Over the years farmers have become more aware of conservation methods to prevent erosion and to protect the water. Some farmers have planted buffer strips—wide strips of grass—along waterways. These grassy strips trap soil and chemicals before they reach the water. Many farmers have changed plowing practices—plowing their fields less often and not as deep. This helps to keep soil from blowing away.

All these advances in the area of science and technology have resulted in fewer farmers working bigger farms. They have also meant Iowa's farm families are producing more than in the past. Some of the changes that have occurred as a result of scientific advances have been good for Iowa; some have caused problems for Iowans. Many farmers use global positioning systems and agree that it is a new form of technology that benefits farmers. But advances in biotechnology and crop production has caused controversy. Iowa's farmers continue to adapt to the changing technologies. And they continue to contribute to the science of agriculture. 


  • The Iowa Heritage: A Guide for Teachers. Iowa PBS, Johnston: Iowa, 1979.
  • Schwieder, Dorothy. Iowa: The Middle Land. Ames, Iowa: Iowa State University Press, 1996