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The Scarlet & Black

Iowa agriculture wasn’t always corn and soybeans

When I first proposed this column, I didn’t intend for it to be an overview of the history of Iowa. However, I’ve found that in order to begin writing about contemporary topics, I feel the need to go back through a lot of history in order to establish a basis to talk about the present. So in this column and in my next one, I’m going to talk about how the agriculture of the area developed, so that I can then start to talk about why agriculture is what it is today.

We all found out soon after coming to Iowa—for natives it’s been lifelong knowledge—that there are pretty much two crops here: corn and soybeans. If we only imagine the Iowa landscape as once covered by tallgrass prairie and now covered by corn and soybeans and dominated by industrial agriculture, we miss a whole intermediate step in the history of this place and the evolution of agriculture in Iowa. In addition, we miss the very interesting origins of those two now ubiquitous and seemingly resident crops, corn and soybeans, which have only been grown in their present range in Iowa for 70 years or so. However boring or timeless the present crop rotation might seem to us, it is actually quite unique and ephemeral when looked at from the longer history of this place and the people who have lived here.

Before white Europeans and Americans brought forged steel plows that could break through the tough roots and thick, sticky soil that characterized the prairie uplands, agriculture in Iowa was confined to the loose soils of low-lying floodplains along rivers, which could be planted without the aid of plows or animal draft power. It was in these places that Ioway Indians grew gardens of corn, climbing beans and squash—a trio known as the Three Sisters which compliment each other when grown together. Native Americans also enthusiastically adopted European crops like muskmelons, watermelons and cucumbers when they became available through trade.

It can be surprising to learn about indigenous agriculture in Iowa, especially when many representations of Native Americans on the Great Plains are fixated on an image of the primitive, nomadic hunter. It is true that the Ioway were hunters too. Cultivated crops were only part of a variety of food sources including wild game like bison, elk, deer and turkey, wild plants like acorns and hazelnuts, maple syrup from sugar maples and fish from the rivers in the spring. Garden sites were only occupied part of the year as groups moved with the seasons and their food sources. Because the upland, interior prairie—places like where Grinnell is today—could not be farmed by Native Americans and were used mainly for hunting, they remained “unsettled.”

The people who settled the prairie were white Americans and Europeans who brought the steel plows and animal draft power necessary to break the prairie sod and begin farming the rich, exposed soil. While contact between whites and Native Americans had first occurred in the late 1600s, whites only began to settle in Iowa in the 1830s and 1840s, after the United States government had forcibly dispossessed many Native Americans of their right to the land through wars and treaties. Because whites had plows and draft power and because they were entirely dependent on agriculture for their food, their farms were much bigger than indigenous gardens—their farms were over a hundred acres each, while the Ioway farms had been just a few acres. They grew corn like Native Americans did, but they also grew European crops like oats and wheat. They kept pastures for grazing and for hay. In addition to oxen—and later draft horses which eventually replaced oxen as the most important source of animal power—they had dairy cows, pigs and chickens. They also had large vegetable gardens and grew lots of potatoes. Over the years farms grew in size as more crops were raised for market rather than just for home consumption. This increase in size was limited, though—farms could only get so big and still be manageable with only human and animal labor to harness.

These farmers and their lifestyle should not be idealized. After the Civil War many farmers exhausted their soils growing wheat because of a boom in wheat prices—some of the nicer houses in Grinnell are a product of this “wheat boom”—but then the prices bottomed out and pests destroyed whole wheat crops. The point is that for many years after white settlement a very different agriculture from the one that exists today was practiced. Farms were diversified and most of what they produced was for home consumption. In my next column I will talk about the great change that came about in the 20th century, the change that led to the agriculture we know today.

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