After the United States government allowed settlers into Iowa in 1833, stories about the new land spread rapidly. Thousands of farmers streamed westward.
Moving to Iowa
By the 1850s the migration to Iowa had become a great wave. Families camped at the Mississippi, waiting their turn for ferryboats to the other side. In only a few years these settlers would turn the forests and prairies into plowed fields.
Iowa's First Farmers
Long before American settlers pushed westward, Native Americans raised crops along the rivers of Iowa. Using tools made from buffalo shoulder blades tied to wooden handles, they planted maize, beans and squash. For them the open prairies were places to hunt, not to farm. Herds of buffalo, deer and elk ranged over the land. Thick as clouds, the flocks of prairie chickens rose from the grass, where wild fruits and strawberries ripened.
Forest and Prairie Meet
Iowa is located where the great eastern forests and the prairies of the western United States meet. There is not a straight line where trees stop and grass takes over. But it is in Iowa where the trees finally give way to the endless Great Prairie.
Settlers on the prairie faced a different set of problems than pioneers of the forested lands. Breaking up the matted root system of the prairie sod required large, strong plows pulled by many oxen. As settlers moved farther out on the prairie, there was no wood for homes, fences and fuel. Much of the prairie was swampy. A way was needed to drain away the water before the land could be farmed.
Variety of Crops
These earliest farmers planted crops that supplied their families and livestock with food. They kept a few chickens and hogs, a cow and some sheep. Orchards were often planted.
Farmers cleared more land and grew a bigger crop each year. Extra wheat, corn, oats or hogs were traded or sold. Farmers would trade these items for things that could not be made on the farm, such as sugar, coffee, thread or cotton cloth. If these goods were sold, the money would be used to buy more land or to pay taxes.
Farmers arriving from the many different regions of the United States brought their special agriculture with them. Those from New England and New York carried the seeds for plum, apple and pear trees. Kentuckians brought their knowledge of improved seed and livestock breeding. From Pennsylvania and Ohio fine flocks of sheep came to graze in the dry pastures of southern Iowa.
New Farm Machinery
People farming prairie soil faced a serious plowing problem. The soil stuck to the wood or iron blade making work slow because the plowman was forced to stop often and remove the gluey coat of dirt. In Illinois John Deere's success in creating a steel plow solved this problem. The plowshare cut through the earth without sticking.
At the same time Cyrus McCormick manufactured his reaper. New farm machinery worked quickly and saved time. Farmers found that they could grow and harvest more acres of grain.
Women Take Over the Farm
In the 1860s, when Iowa's men marched off to the Civil War, many farms were left to the care of women, children and older farmers. The new machinery made it possible for them to produce food to support the armies. Women kept up their usual washing, cooking and sewing and child care as well as tending to the livestock and the crops.
Steam engines already provided power for riverboats. Now these engines pulled trains westward. People and goods were getting around faster than ever before. This meant that settlers could travel to Iowa more easily, and farmers could ship their products quickly over long distances.
Before the Civil War trains had already reached the Mississippi River from the East; and rails had been laid to Iowa City, Cedar Falls and Ottumwa. With the post-war railroad boom, Iowa farm products could reach the growing markets of the East, South and West.
Wheat Wears Out the Soil
During the Civil War wheat prices went up, and Iowans planted more. With the end of the war the "bottom dropped out" of wheat prices. In older fields, wheat yields grew poor. Also, pests like grasshoppers and chinch bugs attacked the wheat, destroying the whole crop in some years. For many Iowa farmers, that was the signal to put their energy into corn and livestock. Iowans realized they could make more money on corn, particularly when faced with competition from wheat from newly-opened farms on the Great Plains. Corn was worth more per acre and Iowa could grow it better than Nebraska and Kansas. There was a good market for animals at packing plants in Sioux City or Chicago. Corn-fed hogs and cattle soon led Iowa agriculture. Another reason farmers stopped planting wheat year after year was because it wore out the soil.
Regions Produce Different Products
Over the years farmers learned that soils differed around the state. Certain crops did better in certain areas. Agricultural regions took shape in Iowa even though most of the soils were excellent for corn and other grains. The northeast was good for pasture. Dairy cattle thrived there. In the southern, western, and eastern areas livestock became common. Farmers in northcentral Iowa learned that one of the most productive uses for Iowa land was to grow corn, feed it to hogs and market the hogs. Later, after the development of refrigerated railcars, farmers started using this process for beef too.
Farmers Become More Careful
Farmers had tended to be careless in their use of the land. This was not just Iowa's problem. Americans were used to thinking there would always be more land for new farms. By the 1880s they saw this would not be true much longer. Farmers began to take an interest in keeping their soil fertile. They rotated corn with oats and hay to prevent crop diseases and insects. Crop rotation also helped to keep the soil supplied with different plant foods, instead of wearing it out by growing the same crop year after year. In the low, swampy areas of prairie, farmers learned to tile the fields to drain off the water.
Farmers also learned that certain breeds of hogs and cattle produced better meat than others. They began to raise animals that sold best at the packinghouses. Special attention was also given to the feeding of animals to produce the best possible meat.
The Golden Age of Agriculture
By the start of the 20th century, farming in Iowa was very much a business. The golden age of agriculture had arrived. But farmers were moving away from the simple country life. Good business planning and labor-saving machinery became more and more important. Farms grew larger and required fewer hands. As time went on, fewer and fewer Iowans worked closely with the soil.
All across the nation people moved to cities, where there were jobs in factories and shops. America was on its way to becoming an industrial nation. Although Iowa developed large and important industries, agriculture would remain an important part of life throughout the 20th century.
Animals Provide Power on the Farm
Both horses and oxen provided the power on American farms up until the middle of the 1800s. But oxen were too slow to pull the new machinery Iowans began using in the 1850s and 1860s. Most of the horses were fast enough, but tired quickly. Powerful animals like the draft horses used in Europe were needed. Iowans imported Percherons, Belgians and Clydesdales. Along with the other agricultural states of Ohio, Michigan and Illinois, Iowa became a leader in breeding draft horses.
Change Over Time
European settlers began farming early in the 1800s in Iowa. They were eager to move into the area. They learned much about farming in the mid- to late-1800s. Many changes occurred on Iowa farms during those early years. Equipment and crops changed. Scientific advances affected farming. A war and hard economic times forced changes on the farm. All the changes led up to a time that was known as the Golden Age of Agriculture. But the good times didn't last. Amidst all the changes that occurred in the early days of farming in Iowa, one thing never changed. Agriculture remained a core of Iowa life.
- Margaret Atherton Bonney, Ed., “Early Agriculture,” The Goldfinch 2, no. 3 (February 1981): 1-5.
Adapted from original article published in The Goldfinch, provided courtesy of State Historical Society of Iowa.