Agricultural Products—Iowa Farmers Adapt to Changing Times

Iowa has provided a home for farmers for many years. Throughout the years each generation of farmers has shown flexibility and creativity in crop production. As events and economic conditions have affected farmers' lives they have adapted to survive. 

Food Producers

In the 1830s farm families began moving into southeastern Iowa and along the Mississippi River. They produced most of their own food as well as feed for livestock. Wheat was often regarded as a cash crop while the other crops were consumed on the farm. Before long, families were producing larger quantities of crops and selling most of their crops to others. Through the years Iowa farm men and women have raised many different crops including wheat, corn, rye, oats, sorghum (used in making molasses), hay and soybeans. Women managed poultry, eggs, butter, cheese and cream production.

In the 1850s, there were farmers everywhere in Iowa except in the far northwest corner. They settled across the flat, treeless prairies of north central Iowa, which had some of the world's most fertile soil. Iowa’s farm families expanded their operations to include cattle raising which soon became a major industry. They also produced wool and some fruit. Hog production became a big money making venture for Iowa's farmers too. 

Civil War Changes Ag Products

The Civil War greatly increased the demand for crops and livestock. The army needed huge supplies of meat to feed the troops and leather for boots, saddles and harness. The prices for crops shot up. At that time, many Iowa farmers were still growing wheat and the state was ranked second in wheat production. During the Civil War Iowans increased their production of wool because of the huge wartime demand. 

In 1875 Iowa wheat production reached its peak. It took a disaster in the form of grasshopper plagues to finally drive farmers away from producing wheat. They switched to corn, which they fed to livestock. As crop rotation gained acceptance, oats became another leading grain product. Wheat production moved to the Great Plains of Kansas, Nebraska, the Dakotas and Canada. 

When Iowa farmers made the switch from cattle grazing to cattle feeding they even imported different breeds of cattle from Europe. Dairy farming also boomed.

When farmers realized they could make more money feeding corn to hogs they began to raise hogs in quantities. Hog production became a big business for farmers. By the 1880s Iowa farmers were producing large quantities of corn, hogs, beef cattle and hay.

Farmers Diversify Production

Iowa was a leading horse breeding state in the late 19th century. Horses were used on all farms to pull machinery, so there was a big market for work horses in Iowa and other farming states. Horses eat oats so Iowa farmers grew more oats to meet the demand.

As farmers began to diversify their production, different regions of the state became known for specialties. Corn and hogs were grown all over the state. Dairy production became concentrated in northeast Iowa. Farmers in the southwest part of the state produced grass seed. Some farmers in north central Iowa grew flax. Popcorn became a specialty in Sac and Ida Counties. 

America's participation in both World I and World War II made great demands on Iowa agriculture. Iowa's farmers were encouraged to produce more to help feed the troops and civilians around the world. Iowa's food production increased dramatically during the war years.

For over 100 years farm operations were diversified. Poultry and livestock were raised on every farm. But in the 1950s farm operations began to change. Farmers began to raise fewer crops. Families got rid of their cows and stopped milking. Women stopped raising chickens and often had smaller gardens. Farms became less diversified and became more specialized. Iowa farmers raised fewer different kinds of crops. More and more farm women began working in nearby towns to help support their families. 

The Government Helps Farmers

Iowa's government officials work to help farmers sell more of their crops. One way is to find more uses for Iowa’s crops. Examples include using soybean oil as machine grease and using corn to make ethanol. Ethanol is added to gasoline to help reduce pollution. These programs will help bring more prosperity to Iowa farm families.

Iowa's farmers are showing creativity by finding new ways to farm. They are producing different crops and growing them in new ways. They are raising different kinds of livestock. Iowa's farmers have begun to produce products such as soy foods, organic livestock and crops, bees, goat cheese, wine and ethanol.

The determination of the Iowa farmer has helped make Iowa known around the world as a producer of many farm products. From popcorn to honey, Iowa supplies the world with a diverse source of farm products. 


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