Farming in Iowa
Ask anyone what they think of when they think of Iowa, and images of corn fields often come to mind. Farming has always been a dominant means of survival for the people who called Iowa home, from the Native American tribes, to American pioneers, and today’s Iowa citizens. Farming has changed the Iowan landscape as the methodologies have evolved from hand tools, such as the scapula bone hoe, to the plow, and finally the tractor.
Iowa’s soils and climate encouraged the growth of a tallgrass prairie, where grasses could grow over six feet tall! This prairie ecosystem dominated the majority of Iowa land, covering up to three fourths of it. Forests of pine and hardwood trees grew along rivers and other water bodies, but timber was scarce in the open prairie.
Iowa was once covered with tallgrass prairie, an ecosystem that has largely disappeared due to farming operations. This tallgrass prairie resembled the ecosystem of the Midewin National Tallgrass Prairie center in Illinois.
Tallgrass prairie once covered 70-80% of the Iowan landscape. Today, there is less than 1% left, due to farming pressures. Many Iowans today are unfamiliar with this historic landscape since so little of it remains, and invasive species have flourished. Iowa has enacted the Endangered Plants and Wildlife law in an attempt to preserve Iowa’s diversity.
Sometime after the retreat of the last glacier, Native American ancestors settled in the newly minted plains of Iowa. Tribes established themselves along water resources: lakes, rivers, and streams. Water, timber, and game were more plentiful along waterways than out on the open prairies, and rivers offered quick transportation. Here Native peoples began to practice small scale farming to supplement food acquired through hunting and gathering. Tribes divided their year between growing crops along the rivers during the growing season and tracking buffalo herds on the plains in the winter.
Women were the primary farmers in Iowan Native American society. Garden plots were located along rivers, not on the prairies. The soil here was not as rich, but regular flooding replenished nutrients.
Like many gardeners today, Native American farmers cultivated small plots of land using hand tools. Common tools were the digging stick and the scapula (shoulder blade) bone hoe. The digging stick was used to plant seeds, while the scapula hoe was used to work the earth and sculpt mounds around the growing stalks of corn.
Once the Blackhawk Territory, land that included Iowa, was integrated into the young United States following the Louisiana Purchase from France in 1803, European American settlers began their historic migration west. Multiple land cessations from various Native American tribes transferred land rights to the United States between the years 1830-1851. Early explorers’ and pioneers’ stories of the beautiful and bountiful Iowa prairies spread like wildfire, prompting those with enough ambition to journey forth. People migrated to Iowa seeking land with the hopes of establishing successful farms, a dream made possible by the fertile Iowa soil. A farmer’s claim to land was established through its cultivation and soon many sod breaking plows were churning up the prairie. By 1870, the majority of Iowa land was settled, dotted with farmsteads and growing townships. The pioneers planted crops of corn, wheat, buckwheat, and rye, along with vegetables grown in garden plots. Wheat had been the principal crop in Iowa, with Iowa claiming the title as the second largest wheat producer in the United States following the Civil War. It wasn’t until the 1880’s that Iowa ranked first in corn production as it shifted away from growing wheat.