Searching for Iowa’s Agricultural History

[by Cathy Lafrenz]

I am a farmer.  Plain … simple…. a farmer.  I grow food.

And I am bothered by the fact that we as Iowans, know more about our I-phones and our cars than we do about the food we eat.  Most of you can tell me every app your phone can do…… but know nothing about where your meat comes from.  We know what type of leather is on the seat of our SUV’s but have no idea about the pesticides on our vegetables.  We don’t know how the vegetables are raised or when they are harvested.

In 1952, there were over 200,000 farms in Iowa.  Now there are almost 93,000 farms.  The good news is that is an increase since the 2000 census.  We have 4000 more farms…. most of those are  under nine acres.

The bad news…. we continue to lose farms and therefore, we continue to lose the agricultural knowledge and history that comes from living in a rural/farming community.  We are two and three generations away from the farm. We don’t know the difference between disking and plowing or between a ram and a wether.

We can not know what we eat ….. unless we know agriculture.

We are so lucky to have the National Heritage Area Silos and Smokestacks, located in Eastern Iowa.  Bordered by I-80 on the south and I-35 on the west, Silos and Smokestacks is one of the largest National Heritage Areas, with 37 counties encompassing 20,000 acres.

America farms in all 50 states.  Why does Story of American Agriculture Comes to Life in Iowa?  Might be Grant Wood’s American Gothic but most likely, our rich diverse agricultural history is the reason.  Our farms were settled by Swedes, Germans, Irish and Norwegians.  Our northeastern counties are dotted by dairy farms.  And our central counties are filled with the tall corn fields.  We raise hogs and cattle and soybeans and grapes.

With over 100 partner sites, Silos and Smokestacks gives us the opportunity to learn and discover the depth and the breadth of agriculture.

A visit to the Franklin County Fair and Grandpa’s Farm can show old-time farming demonstrations with horse-drawn plows and steam threshing machines.

A day at Tabor Winery can teach you the history of wine making in Iowa at the oldest estate winery in Iowa.  And an evening at Farm House Bed and Breakfast can have you gathering eggs, milking the cows and feeding the baby calves…….. all before eating a full-course farmers’ breakfast in the morning. 

And no one in the state is teaching the history and the future of agriculture better than Living History Farms in Urbandale.  With 500 acres, Living History Farms spans over 300 years of Iowa agriculture.

So start your journey for agricultural knowledge here at home.  Visit and support Silos and Smokestacks and its partner sites. 

A farmer like me, will thank you.

Lafrenz is a regular contributor for Blog for Iowa on the topic of
food.  She serves on the board of the Quad-Cities chapter of Buy Fresh-Buy Local
She raises hens for egg production and is Animal Welfare ApprovedIn
her spare time she advocates for health care reform, spins yarn, and
knits every pair of socks she wears.  Check out her blog, Miss Effie’s Diary

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