The history of Iowa’s agriculture, ranging from growing cherries and tomatoes to the introduction of precision agriculture, were put on display at the “Earth’s Bounty in Iowa: Then and Now” program Thursday evening at the Nevada Public Library.
The event, focused on the history of Iowa agriculture, featured speakers Pamela Riney-Kehrberg, an Iowa State history professor specializing in rural America, and Darcy Maulsby, an Iowa farmer and self-employed marketing specialist.
Their touring program is designed to accompany the Iowa Center for the Book’s 2019 All Iowa Reads title, “This Blessed Earth” by Ted Genoways. Though the book is set in Nebraska, Riney-Kehrberg and Maulsby are bringing the Iowa connection to the program.
The women each gave a presentation on the past and present, respectively, of Iowa agriculture, providing a broader view in context of how the agriculture industry came to where it is today. Riney-Kehrberg cited four historical events, which she calls pivot points, that heavily impacted farming across the United States in the 20th century.
“These pivot points are really important for understanding how we come to have the agricultural system that we have today,” she said.
Beginning in 1900, Riney-Kehrberg took the audience on a tour of agriculture through World War I, what she calls the Long Great Depression, World War II and the Farm Crisis of the 1980s.
Iowa in the early 1900s was far from the vast fields of corn and soybeans it has today. Riney-Kehrberg provided a highly diverse list of 34 products grown on at least one percent of Iowa farms in 1900, including geese, apricots, strawberries, tomatoes and popcorn.
The lengthy list does not include the additional products grown only for family consumption like milk and eggs.
Today, thoughts of Iowa do not immediately bring to mind fields of fruits and vegetables. In the early 1900s, a large number of canning factories sprinkled throughout the state provided an accessible market for the diverse crops, Riney-Kehrberg said.
Both Riney-Kehrberg and Maulsby discussed the changes made to the structure of the family farm over 100 years.
Farms in the early 20th century were run by men, women and children who worked the land together. According to Riney-Kehrberg, children were a vital part of the operation and school schedules were adjusted to accommodate farm work—something older members of the audience remember well. When Riney-Kehrberg asked why girls did not usually attend school on Mondays, it was met with chuckles and murmurs of “wash day.”
Through both World Wars, farms lost the labor of many men who went overseas, women worked outside the home and farm outputs grew explosively to turn out products for the war effort.
Because of this, Riney-Kehrberg said, the Great Depression came early to Iowa in 1920. Farms that had worked feverishly to increase production were now deeply in debt without a market for their abundance of crops after WWI. According to Riney-Kehrberg, 1 in 9 Iowa farms were foreclosed on between 1921 and 1932.
“There were farmers who took their hogs and … sent them to Chicago, expecting to get a payment back, and instead what they got was a bill,” Riney-Kehrberg said. “It cost more to send those hogs to Chicago than they were worth.”
Iowa farm families took advantage of government subsidies in the 1933 New Deal for producing less and implementing new conservation efforts like contour plowing. Terraces from these practices can still be seen in fields in western Iowa, Riney-Kehrberg said.
The length of World War II sent demands skyrocketing compared to the first war. While farmers still expanded to meet the needs, they learned from the resulting depression and made certain that price supports would continue after the war.
According to Riney-Kehrberg, the outpouring of farm workers leaving to fight in the war created a demand for farm labor that lead to changes in farming technology.
“Farmers who had resisted buying their first tractor bought their first tractor during World War II because they need some way to replace the labor that they have lost,” she said.
Chemicals manufactured during the war also contributed to how farmers managed pest control. Riney-Kehrberg said while the introduction of herbicides made farming easier, it was the “death blow” for Iowa’s thriving fruit and vegetable production because of drift from weed-killing sprays.
Farming in Iowa progresses with the results of World War II, increasing in scale until the 1980s. Farmers in the 1970s had borrowed tremendous amounts of money, Riney-Kehrberg said. Loans with interest rates as high as 23 percent and falling prices for land, livestock and crops erased any collateral that farmers had to pay off their debts.
In the end, one quarter of all Iowa farms are lost as a result.
During the Farm Crisis of the 1980s, children were strongly encouraged to leave the family farm rather than stay in the business, Maulsby said, remembering herself in early adulthood at that time.
“Even though nobody specifically said ‘do not come back,’ it was made real clear that if you have any brains in your head, you go to college, you get a real job and have a nice life because farming is way too hard for a talented person,” she said.
Although the whimsical picture of the diverse, small farmyard on 160 acres is no longer the norm, Maulsby emphasized the ways agriculture is moving toward environmentalism and conservation.
According to a study she cited from the University of Arkansas, from 1960 to 2015 pork producers in the United States are using 75.9 percent less land, 25.1 percent less water and 7 percent less energy to produce one pound of pork.
These improvements are equal to turning an 18-hole golf course into a 4-hole course, taking 90 fewer showers in a year and eliminating the use of a refrigerator in the average household.
While the speakers focused on the past and present of farming, group discussion after the program moved toward the future of agriculture in Iowa.
“Just because dad or grandpa did something a certain way 20, 50, 100 years ago, it worked for them in their time,” Maulsby said, “but things have changed and we’re always focused on continuous improvement and trying to stay competitive in the world we live in.”
Attendees of the event discussed questions about the future of Iowa’s crop diversity, specifically in regard to the potential introduction of other crops and niche markets, as well as whether Iowa would forever be a “corn and soybeans” state.
Larry Snavely, 68, of Nevada, was glad to hear about new practices designed to specifically target certain areas of a field for fertilizer use.
“It’s neat to hear some of the things they are doing for conservation and how they’re spot checking, do we need to put this in this part of the field or not, where years ago you would just spread it,” he said.
According to Maulsby, the future of agriculture needs to include more discussion among rural and urban communities regardless of whether they think they have a connection to agriculture.
“We all have that ag heritage. If you eat three times a day, you are connected to agriculture,” she said. “As a farmer, I am more than happy to share what I know to bridge that gap.”