Farmers and Farm Life

Iowa has long been known as a good place to grow food. The state has fertile soil and enough rainfall to produce excellent crops. 

Pioneer Farms

When European settlers began to arrive in Iowa in the 1830s, most were farmers. These farmers had simple tools and machines. They had to work hard to plow the virgin tall grass prairie. When the prairie sod was first plowed, settlers heard loud popping noises as the deep prairie plant roots snapped. Iowa’s farmers planted many different crops including rye, oats, sorghum (used in making molasses), hay, corn and soybeans. They also raised chickens, hogs and cattle. 

Women raised large gardens that provided most of the family’s food. Children helped in the garden by pulling weeds. Girls helped their mothers with housework, and boys helped their fathers in the barn and in the field. 

Everyone’s work went according to the seasons. In the spring crops were planted, and in the fall they were harvested. Gardening and canning were done in the summer and quilting, sewing and mending in the winter. Some work—such as milking, preparing meals, and taking care of children—had to be done in every season. 

As new machines that made farming easier were invented, families were able to produce larger quantities of crops and could sell most of what they harvested to others. 

Hard Times and Government Help 

Most years Iowa’s farm families have had good crops, but some years the crops fail. Drought has often been the main cause of crop failure. Some years farm families also do poorly because of lowa farm prices. During these years some families lose their farms or have little money to live on. 

The depression of the 1930s was the worst time. Banks closed so farmers could not borrow money to carry on their farming operations. Hundreds of families lost their land and had to move from the farm. An Iowan, Henry A. Wallace, was the Secretary of Agriculture at that time. In 1933 he set up a farm program to help farmers. The program paid farmers to stop farming part of their land. This program was designed to help reduce the surplus of crops. 

Continuous Change

In the 1950s farm operations began to change. Farmers began to raise fewer types of crops, specializing in growing one or two things. Families got rid of their cows. Women stopped raising chickens and often had smaller gardens. More and more farm women began working in nearby towns to help support their families.

As technology has improved, farm families have been able to increase the number of acres they tend. The average size of an Iowa farm in 1950 was 170 acres. In 2000 the average acreage was 340 acres. This has caused the number of Iowa farms to drop from 200,000 in 1950 to 94,000 in 2000.

More farmers are using soil conservation methods. Farmers are not plowing their fields as often or as deep. This helps to keep soil from blowing away. Some farmers are planting buffer strips—wide strips of grass—along waterways. These practices help to prevent erosion of soil and water pollution. 

Current farm programs are different from the 1930s, but farmers still receive money from the federal government to help them in hard times. In Iowa government officials are also working to help farmers sell more of their crops. One way is to encourage other countries to buy more farm products. Another 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 aim to help bring more prosperity to Iowa farm families.


Farm work varied with the seasons and required cooperation among families and neighbors.

Media Artifacts

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