Why do farmers buy seeds?

When farmers today want to plant their crop fields, they buy seeds. Was this always the case? Why do they buy seeds? Is there something special about the seeds they buy? Let’s walk through it together!

Historical Seed Sources

Let’s go way back to the beginning. Farming began as a practice in the Neolithic Era when people started collecting seeds from plants they were gathering, and purposefully put them in specific areas. This kept people more grounded in one location, and made their food supply more controllable. This process of harvesting what you need to use and then setting aside extra to plant the next year became common for centuries. Some people still do this today! Have you ever kept a couple extra potatoes from the bottom of your potato bag to plant in your garden in the spring? You have, too!

When collecting seed from crops was the main practice, farmers would keep seeds from specific crops that did well. A good example of this is corn. The native crop, teosinte, had extremely small ears with very tough and difficult-to-use kernels. Indigenous folks in teosinte’s native region slowly and purposefully kept (selected) seeds from teosinte that were from desirable plants that offered improved traits such as larger ears and easier-to-use kernels. This process of artificial selection brought us early corn!

The Hybridization Boom

In the 20th century, a new phenomenon was starting to be harnessed in the world of crops: hybrid vigor. This concept basically means that when you take two varieties of one species and breed them together, the offspring performs better than either parent would suggest. For example, if you crossbreed a breed of dog that commonly has joint issues with a breed of dog that commonly has breathing issues, the offspring may be larger and healthier than both parents. The same concept works with livestock and crops!

Here in Iowa, one of the pioneers of this concept was Henry A. Wallace. He went on to found a hybrid corn seed company that eventually became Pioneer Hi-Bred, now Corteva Agriscience.

Second Generation Hybrid Crops

Ok, so hybrid crops became more commonplace because they outperformed other open-pollinated varieties that folks were collecting from their own farm. But then why didn’t the farmers keep the seeds from the first year hybrid crop yield? Unfortunately, it doesn’t quite work like that.

What makes hybrid crops so interesting is that they’re so uniform. We know what parent A and parent B are, so we know what their offspring will be. But when the first generation open-pollinates itself, the offspring are much less uniform. It’s not that the seeds won’t grow or that the plants are sterile, it’s more that you have lost that initial hybrid vigor of breeding two different varieties together. In a crop field, this could look like corn plants of many different heights or different abilities to fight off disease. The crop field could simply end up less uniform.

The chart to the right can help illustrate this. The first generation (F1) has a predictable genetic makeup (genotype) as well as predictable physical characteristics (phenotype). However, if it were to self-pollinate, its offspring (F2 generation) would be much less predictable due to the variety in its genetic background.

Does Genetic Engineering Have Anything To Do With This?

Yes and no.

Genetic engineering isn’t a term that’s really regulated, but you could call it the scientific intervention of a plant on a DNA level instead of at the plant level (like with cross-breeding). There have been different ways that this can be done, but essentially a plant breeder will be able to isolate a gene that is either good or bad for a plant and add, delete, or shut off the expression of that gene.

Having the ability to change specific genes can increase the development of a plant’s trait. For example, if there is one specific variety of corn that has poor yield, but is more drought resistant, scientists can identify and isolate that trait to incorporate into a variety that has better performance. This leads to a better-performing crop with improved drought resistance and none of the negative attributes from the parent plant.

Now, if a parent crop has engineered traits, its offspring will have those same traits. However, many engineered traits in crop seeds are copyrighted material, making it illegal to use without permission. These technologies, the research involved, and even down to the time it takes to go through regulations, is a very lengthy and expensive process. For that reason, legally, if using genetically engineered crops, you do need to purchase new seed each year.

But in addition to that, most, if not all, crop seed varieties that are genetically engineered (GE) are also hybrid, meaning that even if the offspring does have the GE trait, it wouldn’t perform as uniformly as the initial seed once did.

So, in short, GE traits would be passed down to future generations, but those traits must be used with permission, and also that offspring wouldn’t perform as desired anyway.

Is this true for all crops?

Partially yes, partially no!

The rules for GE crop seed would hold true to all GE crop seeds (unless the patent was forfeited to be used for humanitarian needs, like golden rice). However, there is a pretty limited amount of GE crops on the market right now. Farmers that produce corn, soybeans, and cotton will likely purchase hybrid, GE crop seed each year.

However, with the new boom of cover crops, more farmers are keeping seed from their last year’s cover crops to seed the field next year. When farmers do this, they will often call the seed bin-run. Cover crops in Iowa might be plants like rye. The goal of this rye crop isn’t necessarily to have the best rye crop or the most uniform rye crop, it’s to protect the soil. So, saving money by keeping some seed back can make sense for some producers!

United Soybean Board

What other questions do you have about seed?


Other resources about crop seeds:

Career Corner: Virginia Hanson

Virginia Hanson, Agriculture Communications Associate Professor at Iowa State University

Virginia Hanson, an Agriculture Communications Associate Teaching Professor at Iowa State University, was raised on a multi-generational dairy farm in Walton, New York. After graduating high school, she continued her education in college where she earned her bachelor’s and master’s of English. Hanson taught grade school before advancing her career to the community college level. While instructing community college, Hanson enjoyed helping her students determine where they were academically and help them obtain new goals. After teaching at the community college level, Hanson decided to maneuver her career into agriculture communications due to the opportunity to continually learn new science. When applying for the new position, there was a full circle feeling due to her background and summer break jobs in extension.

Positions that helped Hanson reach her current job are teaching in both grade school and community colleges and being involved in community activities. The background in teaching aligned with what the agriculture communications department was lacking at the time of her hiring. Community events such as on a board involved in food cooperative and community gardens allowed her to hear what people were concerned about related to the agriculture industry. Hanson is on her way to becoming a professor, but the process has many roles and requirements that must be fulfilled.

Hanson’s day-to-day is flexible which allows her to be a mom at the same time. There are days that are completely spent in the classroom and others where she is answering emails or meeting with advisees. Meetings are a regular occurrence throughout the year as she represents the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences staff in the faculty senate. She regularly meets with the Dean and the chairs from all colleges with Iowa State University. Similar to other educators, she spends time grading assignments and writing letters of recommendation. She also serves as the advisor for the Agricultural Communicators of Tomorrow club. Hanson enjoys how intertwined her work and personal life have become. This allows her to grade assignments at home or leave work early to go to her kid’s sports game. Hanson’s favorite part of being an Associate Teaching Professor is “walking into a classroom of 25 new faces and telling myself, ‘This semester is going to be better than last.'”

Iowa State University Curtiss Hall. Photo courtesy of Iowa State University

Qualities that are important to become a college professor are being satisfied with not always knowing the outcome. Hanson has taught a class at Iowa State 33 times, and she doesn’t hear back from the majority of those students. Not knowing if the subjects taught made a difference in the student’s life is difficult as there is no measurable or tangible aspect after the course concludes. Another skill that is important in this field is the ability to listen. There are many students that just want someone to be there and listen when they need it most.

Some classroom subjects that apply to becoming a professor in agriculture communications is English and Science. English is the basis of communication, whether written articles, oral skills, working with groups of people, or engaging with others around you. These aspects are all important in the field and years of English preparation can relate to beneficial skills in the field. Science is an important factor in agriculture communications, but most can learn these topics much faster.

Hanson’s biggest accomplishment is working to make agriculture communications a stand-alone major, at Iowa State University. Currently agriculture communication is an option under another degree. Hanson believes this major will grow the program’s numbers significantly. There has been progress with other colleges to start certificate programs that will transfer to the degree requirements. “All we need is the name Agricultural Communications as a major. We have the club, we have the students, we’ve got the professors, we’ve got the courses,” stated Hanson. The greatest challenge professors are currently facing is how divided our world has become with stances on various issues. Working to bridge the gap and help people learn more about agriculture is something Hanson is striving to do.

Hanson’s advice to students interested in this field is to start out being a tutor to see if those aspects still interest you. Another way is taking college education courses throughout different areas, such as early childhood, middle or high school, or college. Reaching out to current teachers in various areas about what they do and why they chose the field could also be a great way to start. Agriculture communications is everchanging as agriculture never stops innovating and communication platforms are ever evolving.


What’s Cookin’? Easy Pulled Pork Sandwiches

October in National Pork Month, or as some call it ‘Porktober.’ It’s a great opportunity to celebrate one of our state’s highest exports – pork. Iowa is the number one pork-producing state in the U.S. and the top state for pork exports, according to the Iowa Pork Producers Association. Annually, farmers in our state raise nearly 24 million pigs at any one time. That means nearly one-third of the nation’s hogs are raised in Iowa.

Pork Nutrition Facts

Source: Canadian Pork Council

Pork is packed with nutrition. The Institute of Medicine suggests that about 10-35 percent of your day’s total daily calories should come from protein; and of that protein, they recommend about 20-30 grams per meal to help maintain muscle mass and function. Pork is packed full of protein plus many of the nutrients our bodies need to function. It contains all nine essential amino acids necessary for your body’s growth and maintenance.

Watching your heart health? Today’s pork has about 16 percent less fat and 27 percent less saturated fat as compared to 30 years ago. Pork tenderloin and pork sirloin roast meet the criteria for the American Heart Association Heart Checkmark, which means they contain less than five grams of fat, two grams or less of saturated fat, and 480 milligrams or less of sodium per label serving. Pork is packed with protein, making it easy to include in a balanced diet.

How much protein is in pork?

Source: National Pork Board

Which cut of pork should you choose?

You understand the benefit of adding pork to your diet but what cut of pork should you choose? There are many different types of pork cuts available.

Cuts of pork

Pork tenderloin – This savory cut is as lean as boneless, skinless chicken breast.
Pork chops – Pork chops are the most popular cut of pork.
Pork ribs – There are many kinds of pork ribs from back ribs to rip tips.
Pork loin roast – These are sold either bone-in or deboned.
Pork shoulder – This cut goes by many names in the grocery store – picnic roast, blade roast, and more.
Ground pork – Ground pork is a versatile choice that soaks up any flavor you add to it.
Bacon – The versatility of bacon makes it a good choice for many recipes.
Ham – Whether it’s in a sandwich or the main dish for a holiday, ham offers a tasty choice for any meal.
Pork belly – Pork belly is from the underside after the loin and spareribs are removed.
Pork rib roast – This is also referred to as a rack of pork or cut pork loin. This type contains more fat, which makes it flavorful.
Pork steak – These are quick-cooking, popular cuts perfect for grilling.
Sausage – Sausage is seasoned ground pork and comes from a variety of cuts.

Time to eat! Easy Pulled Pork Recipe

Source: Iowa Pork Producers Association

One of my family’s favorite pork recipes is an easy, quick meal for busy school nights – pulled pork sandwiches. We enjoy this recipe from the Iowa Pork Producers Association.


  • 1 – 4-5 lb pork shoulder
  • Pork seasoning/rub of choice
  • ½ cup chicken broth
  • 1 – 12 oz can cola
  • ½ – 1 cup barbeque sauce


  • Remove pork shoulder from the package. Liberally season with your favorite rub. Place in the slow cooker.
  • Pour the chicken broth and the cola over the pork.
  • Cook on low for 8 hours (or high for 5-6 hours) or until the pork is tender and easy to pull.
  • Remove the shoulder from the slow cooker and shred the meat. Stir in barbeque sauce of choice and enjoy alone or on a bun.

Need more recipe inspiration? Check out the pork recipes on the Iowa Pork Producers Association website.

Bring pork education into your classroom

The Iowa Pork Producers Association has a new curriculum to help teachers educate their students about agriculture, specifically the swine industry. Through Destination Pork, students can gain a deeper understanding of the industry, its many opportunities, and how they can further career options. It’s great for general agriculture or animal science study. Access the free curriculum on the U.S. Pork Center of Excellence website.



Pork Cooking and Nutrition Tips
Pork Facts and Statistics
Have questions about food? Ask the expert.
Want more information on pigs? Read a few of our past blogs on pigs: Pigs – The Inventors of BaconThe Big Picture of Iowa’s Pork Production CycleCelebrating Porktober: Getting to Know Pig Breeds. You can also search the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation website for numerous classroom lesson plans and resources on pigs.

Unique Agriculture Commodities: Garlic (Part 1)

Days are beginning to grow shorter, the wind cooler, and trees are beginning to decorate the horizon with color. The signs of fall often mean harvest and many farmers have begun to head to the field to reap the rewards of their spring plantings. Though many crops are done for the year, there is one Iowa crop that is being planted just in time to ward off vampires, garlic.  

Garlic is a root vegetable within the onion family that is grown on many Iowa vegetable farms and is often used as a flavor enhancer in cooking. Garlic is a main staple in my household. Anytime we prepare a meal we include either onions or garlic. Fresh, minced, cooked, sautéed, or thrown in, a meal is not complete without an onion or garlic. So, of course I jumped on the chance to attend a garlic workshop hosted by my public library and local garlic expert Gary Guthrie (Growing Harmony Farms, Nevada, Iowa).

As I walked into the workshop my nose was met with a smell that would make even the most veteran vampire cringe. Memories of bread, spaghetti, and warmth met me at the door. Walking to my seat, I took in the variety of garlic heads that decorated the tables, and the other eager learners that would be participating in learning how to grow and prepare garlic.

Growing Garlic in Iowa

Choosing your crop

The first step of growing any crop is choosing the right variety for your soil, location, and time. Garlic is a unique vegetable that is a bulb made up of multiple cloves. Just how there are different breeds of dogs, there are different varieties of garlic (more than 700!). Garlic is broken into two main categories: soft neck and hard neck. The neck of the garlic refers to the stem (or stalk) that is produced during growth and flowering. Hard neck garlic tends to have fewer cloves that are larger and is cold tolerant. In Iowa, hard neck garlic is grown readily due to Iowa’s colder winters. In contrast, soft neck garlic has smaller cloves and a longer shelf life making it the variety most often sold in grocery stores.  

If you want to use garlic for culinary dishes the flavor profile also impacts the garlic variety planted. Each variety has its own flavor profile ranging from a mild garlic to spicy/hot garlic. Bogatyr is a hard neck variety that has a fiery bite that will make your eyes water (or at least it did mine) with a smooth finish. The Russian Giant, when eaten raw has a spicy earthy flavor that tingles your nose and reminds you of a sneeze. If you’re looking for a milder garlic like the soft neck garlic found in a grocery store, I’d suggest the German Extra Hardy.  


Planting garlic

Garlic is a slow growing crop that needs time to mature and planting in the fall (Oct.-Nov.) allows this time. Growing from seed is difficult and it is more common to plant cloves in well-drained fertile soil. Cloves for planting should be 1-1.5 inches, and the larger the clove, the larger the bulb produced. After the cloves are planted (~3 inches down) you’ll want to cover them in mulch (straw is suggested by Guthrie) to help the soil hold heat throughout the winter. This allows for the perfect soil temperature for garlic to put down roots.

Preparing Garlic

Though I would encourage you to experience the bite a sliver of raw garlic gives, one of my favorite ways to prepare it is roasting. Roasting garlic transforms the flavor profile from hot into a more mellow sweet-savory that can add depth to any dish.

Roasted Garlic

  • Ingredients 
    • 4-8 large heads of garlic 
    • Oven safe dish with cover 
    • Olive oil 
  • Directions 
    • Peel away a few of the papery outer layers of the garlic head while keeping the bulb intact. Slice about ½ inch off the top, just enough to expose the cloves. 
    • Place the garlic cut side up in your oven safe dish. Drizzle with olive oil. You may sprinkle with salt or fresh herbs if you’d like. 
    • Cover the dish and place it into the oven at 400 degrees for 45minutes-1 hour, or until the tops of the cut bulbs are golden brown. Remove and let rest until cool.  
    • Remove the garlic cloves by squeezing them out of the bulb.  
    • Use the roasted garlic on bread, mix it in with butter, mashed potatoes or even soup.

My Takeaways

  • There are multiple flavors of garlic.  
  • This plant is a “hungry plant” and needs a lot of fertilizer. 
  • Garlic takes up little space.  
  • 18 heads of garlic would be enough for a family that really, really likes garlic.  


Want to learn more:

Iowa’s Big Four Cooking Contest Winners

Each year, the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation (IALF) honors Iowa’s agriculture industry and its commodities including corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs through our Big Four cooking competition at the Iowa State Fair. “We invite aspiring chefs of all ages from across Iowa to showcase their culinary skills in two different divisions, sweet or savory, they can get as creative as they like and the only requirement is to use at least two of the big four Iowa commodity ingredients or a by-product of them,” stated IALF Executive Direction, Kelly Foss.

This year’s entries were judged by commodity organization experts, Anne Rehnstrom (Iowa Pork Producers Association), Carrie Dodds (Iowa Corn Growers Association), and Lydia Zerby (Iowa Soybean Association). Foss admitted that “we had fun watching the judges as their eyes lit up with each tasty entry, this year the winner of the sweet category was a warm comfort food and got the judges nodding their heads and clamoring for more.”

Iowa’s Big Four Winners – Sweet Category

Maple Bacon Bread Puddin by Jamie Buelt of Polk City is this year’s cooking contest winner. The winning recipe includes bacon and eggs. Sharon Lesan of Ankeny came in second place with Lemon Bar Pie. Our third place winner is Jennifer Goellner of West Des Moines with Chocolate Caramel Bacon Cupcakes.

The Puddin’:

  • 6 cups of dry bread cubed
  • 5 strips of bacon, fried and cut into bite-sized pieces
  • 6 eggs, divided
  • ¼ cup of Baker’s sugar
  • 1 cup of pure Maple syrup
  • 2 ½ cups of half & half
  • 1 teaspoon cinnamon
  • ¼ teaspoon ground nutmeg
  • 2-3 tablespoons of bourbon

Arrange bread on a cookie sheet and place in 250°F oven for 10 minutes, just enough to dry out the bread. Cut bread into bite-sized pieces. When dry, increase oven temperature to 350°F. Butter a cast iron skillet and set aside.

Beat the eggs and sugar until light. Add cream and other ingredients, but only half the syrup. Mix ½ cup syrup and bourbon and pour over bread. Distribute bacon pieces on top of the bread and then pour the egg mixture over bread, making sure that all the bread is covered. Allow to set about 30 minutes or longer so that bread can absorb the egg-cream mixture.

Bake at 375°F for 50 minutes or until the pudding is brown and a knife comes out clean.

The Sauce:

  • ¼ cup Maple syrup
  • ¼ cup salted butter
  • 1 cup brown sugar
  • ½ cup heavy whipping cream
  • 1 teaspoon bourbon vanilla extract
  • 2 tablespoons of Woodford Reserve Bourbon

Warm the syrup and add the butter. Watching carefully add the brown sugar, bourbon and vanilla extract. When mixture comes to a boil, add the cream. Then turn heat down and continue to cook for 5 more minutes.

Note from the Cook: Bread pudding is the ultimate second-chance food. It allows you to repurpose bread, cake and pastries with yummy egg-cream custard. For this recipe, I had a third cup of mango-peach-ginger compote leftover. It struck me that with some bourbon and cream, it would make a fitting sauce. This particular recipe has evolved over the past several years. I have used apples, raisins, and cherries, but my family prefers the peach.

Iowa’s Big Four Winners – Savory Category

Cowboy Cornbread Salad Cups

The savory category winner in this year’s cooking contest is Cowboy Cornbread Salad Cups made by Ann Gillotti of Ankeny. As Ann states, “This is a great eye-catching salad for your next picnic or potluck and features all of Iowa’s Big Four ingredients – corn, bacon, soybeans (in the mayo), and eggs!” Iowa Girl Breakfast Egg Rolls submitted by Brooklynn Sedlock of Indianola received second place. Jamie Buelt of Polk City received third place with her Iowa Celebration Corn Salad.


  • 15 oz box Cornbread Mix
  • 1/2 cup Unsalted Butter, melted
  • 1 cup Shredded Cheddar Cheese
  • 2/3 cup Whole Milk
  • 1 Large Egg
  • 2 Small Jalapenos, diced

Preheat oven to 375°F. Spray an 8-inch baking pan with nonstick spray and set aside. In a large bowl, whisk together cornbread mix, milk, butter, and egg until moistened. Stir in cheese and jalapenos. Pour mixture into prepared pan. Bake for 25-30 minutes or until toothpick comes out clean. Let cool completely and then crumble into pieces to make 2 cups for salad.

Cilantro Ranch:

  • 1 packet Dry Ranch Dressing Mix
  • 1 cup Buttermilk
  • 1 clove Garlic
  • 1 cup Mayonnaise
  • 1 cup Cilantro Leaves

Add all ingredients in a blender and run on medium speed for 2-3 minutes until smooth and creamy. Refrigerate until ready to assemble the salad.


  • 15 oz can Sweet Corn kernels, drained
  • 1 small Red Onion, diced
  • 1 Tomato, chopped
  • 1 cup Cilantro Ranch
  • 1 teaspoon Chili Powder
  • 1/2 lbs. Bacon, cooked and crumbled
  • 14 oz can Pinto Beans, rinsed and drained
  • 1 Green Bell Pepper, diced
  • 1 cup Shredded Cheddar Cheese
  • 1 teaspoon Smoked Paprika
  • 1/4 cup Green Onion, chopped
  • 2 cups Crumbled Cornbread
  • 8-9 oz cups for serving

Combine the cilantro ranch, paprika, and chili powder, set aside. Add 1/4 cup of cornbread to the bottom of each cup. Add a layer of pinto beans, corn, onion, peppers, and tomatoes to each cup. Top each cup with 2 tablespoons of ranch mixture and 2 tablespoons of cheese. Add 1-2 tablespoons of crumbled bacon and garnish with green onion. Cover and refrigerate for at least 2 hours before serving.


Career Corner: Milo Locker Meats

Milo Locker Meats in Milo, Iowa

Milo Locker Meats in Milo, Iowa, is owned and operated by Angie and Darrell Goering. At their locker they process deer, cattle, and hogs. While they process typical animals for Iowa, they set themselves apart from other lockers through their grocery section. Another way they distinguish themselves from other lockers is through their schedule accommodations for deer and county fair seasons. During the weeks of their surrounding county fairs, Milo Locker Meats clears their schedule for those 4-H and FFA animals. In December, they block off the whole month for deer processing.

Inside Milo Locker Meats grocery area

After an early retirement, Darrell bought the locker that originally was across the street, later designing and building the locker they processes in today. Darrell learned how to properly cut and process meat from the previous owners and once he figured out the trade, he started independently processing meat for sale. He has continued to learn as new endeavors and ideas have been brought forth as the demand has changed over time. Angie entered the locker when her and Darrell got married. She now is the manager of the office, which is essential to an efficient and effective business. While Angie manages the bills, phones, marketing, and so much more, Darrell manages the processing aspect of the locker.

Locker Positions

While purchasing a locker may not be an option for everyone, there are many job areas within the business. An entry-level position for a high school student would be assisting with the sanitation process. This position is vital to a lockers success as meat types cannot be cross contaminated; it could result in consumers becoming ill. At this level, there is also the job of loading out meat to consumers. Those that fulfill this job learn the locations of freezers and meat within those freezers. This position also includes a large amount of communication skills as they will be directly speaking with customers. While speaking with customers, employees listen for any questions or concerns that need to be answered or resolved prior to the customer leaving. Another entry-level position is the harvest floor, there the employee will remove the animal byproducts to maintain sanitation in the area.

The positions in the processing room are available after an employee has graduated with a high school diploma or obtains a GED. In this section of the meat processing the jobs of de-boning the meat, stuffers, wrappers, and labelers are needed. These positions do not require any further degrees or experience as employees learn these machines while on the job. Although further degrees are not required, the willingness to work and have pride in a job well done are necessary.

While the previously listed jobs are all in the meat processing sector of a locker, there are also positions within the retail and office side of the business as well. An office manager is the position that Angie holds. As mentioned before, she answers calls, oversees the financials, markets products, oversees retail area, and interacts with the public in various settings. Employees that assist office managers are holding the position of office assistant. The other position held in the office is the retailers. These employees ensure that the retail section of the locker is stocked and arranged for customers.

Mac & Cheese Flavored Cheddar Bratwursts

Classroom Connections

The classroom connections in this field relate to math and communication skills. Communication skills are vital for retailers, office assistants, office managers, and those loading out meat as they are speaking directly with the customers. This interaction provides the opportunity to answer any questions or resolve any concerns that the consumers may have. Those processing the meat must be precise with their math skills as they are weighing the meat that is later packaged by weight. If these amounts are inaccurate a customer they could be not enough or too much given to the customers.

Learn More


Fun Ways to Learn About Agriculture at the Iowa State Fair

Some of my earliest memories are of riding in our camper and pulling into the Iowa State Fair to show our horses. I always knew when we passed by the Anderson Erickson cows that we were almost there. A lot has changed since I was a kid, but one thing hasn’t – the importance of agriculture to the state of Iowa. The Iowa State Fair is one large celebration of our Iowa’s agriculture industry and the important role it plays in our daily lives and economy.

There are lots of ways to enjoy the Iowa State Fair but I love that it provides an opportunity to take my children around to teach them more about agriculture. Here are a few of our favorite stops!

Avenue of the Breeds

From elk to horses and sheep to fish, this is the place to see 100 different breeds and approximately 120 different animals of all kinds. You’ll see breeds here that you can’t see anywhere else at the fair. Each breed has its own unique benefits and purpose. When they’re side by side it’s amazing to see all the differences. Representatives are available in the hallways to ask questions about the animals. The Avenue of the Breeds is located west of the 4-H Building.

Little Hands on the Farm

Little Hands on the Farm

This is a place where the kids get a chance to get their hands dirty and become a farmer. Kids will plant, grow, harvest, and sell their produce just like a farmer. They’ll get a basket and proceed along a path that includes a garden, grain bin, apple orchard, chicken coop, tractor shed, sheep barn, and dairy barn. After gathering items along the way they’ll get the chance to sell these items at the Farmers’ Market and spend their money at the grocery store.

Milk a Cow at the Milking Parlor

Learn how cows are milked at the Milking Parlor, which is located on the north side of the Cattle barn. You’ll learn all you want about a cow’s life on a dairy farm. Once you’re done, enjoy an ice cream cone at the Dairy Barn nearby.

Meet Baby Animals at the Animal Learning Center

Get up close and personal with all kinds of farm babies from ducklings and calves to piglets and chicks. You never know what you might see in the Animal Learning Center including animal babies being born. There are veterinary students on hand to oversee the animals so it’s a great opportunity to ask questions about animals, veterinary sciences, and agriculture. The Animal Learning Center is located south of the Little Hands on the Farm.

How Does Your Garden Grow?

My garden is brown and dead so maybe I need a trip to The Garden at the Iowa State Fair to get some help. Kids can learn how a garden grows. This area is full of garden beds and displays to teach kids how vegetables take root in Iowa soil and grow. There is also a special composting exhibit that teaches the value of ecology and sustainability. The Garden is located north of the Little Hands on the Farm.

IALF Activities at the Fair

If you’re at the fair on certain days, you’ll have a chance to see agriculture learning in action. IALF has two main activities at the fair this year.

  • Big Four Cooking Competition  
    • Wednesday, Aug. 17, 1:30 p.m., Elwell Food Building
    • IALF honors Iowa’s agriculture industry and its biggest commodities of corn, soybeans, pork, and eggs, through this cooking contest each year. Stop by to see our judges determine the winners this year!
  • STEM Day at the Fair
    • Sunday, Aug. 21 from 9 a.m. to 7 p.m., Grand Concourse
    • Join us to learn more about biodegradable packing peanuts with hands-on activities.

There is a ton of agriculture learning that can happen at the fair if you just look for it. What are some of your favorite agricultural learning activities at the fair?


Unique Agriculture Commodities: Plot Harvester

Last week I was driving in Ames near Iowa State University. As I drove by the outskirts of the campus, there were pieces of land broken into small sections. Each section had a crop growing, some were covered with nets, others had small signs in front of them, while some had been roped off from the other sections. These sections of land are known as “test plots.” As a scientist myself, these plots are always fascinating as they give you a glimpse into the future technology of agriculture.  

Every year scientists, agriculturalists, and researchers are working to develop new technology to improve yields. These improvements are necessary to reduce agricultural impacts on the environment, and to keep up with the world’s growing needs of food, fiber, and fuel. But, before new seed, fungicide, pesticide, and herbicide varieties become commercial products farmers can purchase (check out our blog A Day in the Life of a Seed Dealer), they must be tested and verified. Test plots can be found all around the world as researchers investigate the effectiveness of a new product (e.g., seed variety, fungicide, pesticide, herbicide, etc.), or if a product can work in a new location. Each research question is specific, but every researcher has a goal of collecting data. The type of data collected is based on the research question. For example, if a research team is investigating a new seed variety, they might collect data on drought tolerance, wind resistance, pest and fungal resistance, and yield. While a research team that investigates a fungicide might gather data on yield, moisture, infection rate, and seed weight. Gathering this data is critical to the success of future technology that can be available to growers, because if the product doesn’t do well, it will not be approved for distribution. 

Collecting Data

Some of the data researchers gather can be done using simple tools like a ruler, scale, or image chart. Other data may need to be collected using complex tools that can measure fat (lipid) amounts or moisture levels within a single sample. Though data can be collected at any time during the growing season, many researchers collect at harvest, and test plot harvest requires specialized machines. Research scientists want to eliminate as much human error as possible. One way they can do this is by using customized equipment that is tailored to their specific research needs. Engineers, mechanics, and technicians work with a team to develop machinery to be used in these plots to gather data and to maneuver in a smaller area. 

Harvesting a Test Plot

In the fall, crops are harvested using a combine. This machine helps to remove the seed (e.g., corn, soybean, etc.) from the plant material to then be sold to make other products like corn syrup or feed for livestock. The combine is a menagerie of simple tools. For example, when harvesting corn the combine will cut the stalk, remove the ear, husk the ear, and shell the corn off the cob. Depending on what is being harvested the head (or front) of the combine can be changed to fit the crop harvest needs. Commercial, or large scale, combines today can harvest up to 32 rows (~42 feet) at a time.  

Commercial combine

Just like a commercial combine, plot harvesters include the same basic parts. When harvesting corn they will cut the stalk, remove the ear, husk the ear, and shell the corn off the cob. Their heads can be interchanged to fit the crop that is being harvested. Unlike a conventional combine, plot harvesters are much smaller. Test plots are broken into small pieces of land rather than large acres in one field. This requires a smaller combine that harvests on average four rows at a time. When harvesting a test plot, they are gathering samples and data along the way. To do this, plot harvesters have more tools than a commercial combine. The tools increase efficiency while also reducing human error (a big positive for research!). Many of them will have built-in moisture readers, seed scales, seed samplers, external seats for a sample bagger, and automatic bagging systems to collect and package seed samples. Once harvested, the test plot seeds are sent back to the lab for detailed analysis to help the research team with their investigation. 

Plot Machines in Iowa

A thresher, a harvest machine, that separates seed from the plant.

There are several companies that engineer and design agricultural machinery to be used in test plots, and you don’t have to travel too far in Iowa to find one. ALMACO is in the heart of the Midwest, and the current town I live in, Nevada, Iowa. The first time I drove by ALMACO I was perplexed not only by how to say their name (it’s “al-may-co” if you’re wondering) but by the machines I saw.  

As you peak through the large garage door that faces 2nd Street, you’ll see an iconic blue, and in the summer, what looks like a miniature combine. The combine structure is narrow, and the heads are small and vary based on the crop to be harvested. ALMACO’s harvesting equipment has been engineered to be used in fields of wheat, rice, corn, soybeans and more. One of their most recent harvesters, the R2 Twin-Plot Rotary Harvester, has a dual head and chamber allowing it to harvest two plots at the same time. From within the cab researchers (sometimes a graduate student or intern) can monitor yield, moisture, and the equipment can even be engineered to take samples of the seed automatically. These technological advancements can reduce harvest time and increase time researchers spend in the lab gathering more data and analyzing that data. 

ALMACO planter

In the spring you might catch a glimpse of an ALMACO planter with large magazine cartridges filled with seed. The planter utilizes some basic technology that would be in a commercial planter, but also includes specific technology based on the research team’s needs. For example, if the team is investigating seed varieties, the equipment might have variable rate planting depth and specific chambers for each seed type (like the magazine cartridges). Or, if the research team wants to test fertilizer it might have separate tanks that contain each variety. Researchers and technicians can then program the planter to know what seed or fertilizer should be planted at any given spot in the test field. These technological changes increase efficiency and safety for researchers, reduce the risk of contamination, and reduce human error (again, a big plus for research!).  

Each of these machines have been designed, engineered, and manufactured to aid in the advancement of agriculture technology. With the equipment being custom built, researchers and manufacturers (like ALMACO) have the flexibility to tailor equipment to researcher questions and needs. Together they work to reduce agricultural impacts on the environment, and to keep up with the world’s growing needs of food, fiber, and fuel. 

My Takeaways

  • Seeds, fungicide, pesticide, and herbicides all need to be tested before entering the commercial market. 
  • Research teams are always innovating new technology to improve food, fuel, and fiber, while also being sustainable. 
  • Test plots require specific harvest and planting machines. 
  • ALMACO designs, engineers, and manufactures custom equipment based on the needs of the research group. 
  • There are many career opportunities within the development side of agriculture.  


Want to Learn More

Education Resources

**I wanted to take a moment to thank ALMACO for providing images and videos for this blog.  

A Day in the Life of a Tire Repair Technician

Ever since the invention of the wheel, humankind has been going places. People need to haul things from point a to point b and they try to do so as efficiently as possible, so they use wheels. 

However, one of the major issues of wheels was and is, wear and tear. While the constant rotation around a central axle was excellent for carrying heavy things or moving quickly, it meant that the wheel would slowly wear away over time. They wouldn’t wear away evenly either. A chip, a rock or simple uneven wear would make the wheel no longer round causing the expensive task of replacing something that wasn’t quite broken. What was needed was an expendable layer that would absorb damage, wear away and then be easily replaced at a much more affordable cost than a brand-new wheel. That is what a tire does.

Agriculture is an industry that includes a lot of transportation, and a lot of hours on the road. This adds up to A LOT of  tires. So, farmers need reliable tire repair technicians. Our tire repair technician goes by the name, “Paco” and he owns and operates Paco’s Tire in Underwood, Iowa. Also known as Jeff Andersen, Paco has a motto, “if it rolls we fix it”. He told me about his most unusual tire repair, a stroller tire.

“Paco” of Paco’s Tires

The tire shop is open from 8-5 Monday through Friday and Saturday mornings. People bring in all types of tires for repair and Paco sends service trucks out to the country if a fix is needed in a field. When I asked Paco what the most difficult part of his job was, he told me ordering new tires and coordinating the delivery of those tires. When people want their vehicles serviced, they want to be sure those vehicles are up and running again as soon as possible. Paco and his customers have to wait when delivery trucks run late, certain tires are unavailable, or companies are short staffed and can’t hire enough people to load tires.

Coordinating schedules isn’t the only problem when running a tire repair shop. This can be a dangerous job if a tire wall is weak, and the psi (pounds per square inch) causes an explosion. Paco uses a tire inflation cage when making repairs. One of the main reasons he uses a tire inflation cage is because most large truck tires are made out of different components that can fly out of the tire at high speeds. If a person is standing too close to an unprotected tire during inflation, he or she risks experiencing devastating injuries such as head injuries, cuts, and lacerations – which could be fatal. Paco trains his employees to watch and listen and be ready to protect themselves in case of a blowout.

On the job training is something a new technician can expect to receive once hired by Paco. He looks for people who have experience around tires and then spends two or three days having them watch how he works. The next days are spent working tires while a trained technician watches, taking up to two weeks before the new hire is ready to work on their own. Paco employs three technicians, a bookkeeper, and works on tires himself. He strives to be honest with his customers and deliver a high-quality product and reliable service. He has been working with tires since 1989.

Tire technicians repair and install tires on cars, trucks, and heavy vehicles. They mostly work for vehicle repair shops, tire stores, and dealerships. The duties of a tire technician include installing, balancing, and repairing tires for passenger cars and commercial vehicles. They may also be required to perform roadside assistance.

A successful technician needs to have good communication skills and be able to perform physically demanding tasks. Ultimately, an outstanding tire technician can work quickly and efficiently, while maintaining high industry standards.

As a tire repair technician and a small business owner, Paco is always working to set boundaries between home and work life, but here are some other Tire Technician Responsibilities:

  • Talking to the customer about any issues they are experiencing.
  • Inspecting and assessing tire tread levels, wear patterns, valve quality, and overall health.
  • Recommending appropriate repair treatment or replacement of tires.
  • Repairing punctures and replacing faulty valves.
  • Installing new tires.
  • Balancing tires and completing wheel alignment procedures.
  • Studding tires for snow use.
  • Retreading tires for tractors and other off-road vehicles.
  • Conducting inventory and maintaining equipment.
  • Conducting road-side repairs.

Tire Technician Requirements:

  • High school diploma or GED.
  • Good communication skills.
  • Proven work experience as a tire technician.
  • Attention to detail.
  • Extensive knowledge of tire patterns and material composition.
  • Ability to lift heavy objects.
  • Ability to work in a crouched or standing position for extended periods.

There are as many different types of tires on a farm as there are pieces of equipment. We have tires for tractors, sprayers, wagons, trailers, combines, semi-trucks and pickups, just to name a few.

Six foot tires on the boom sprayer.

Keeping the farmer rolling is a huge priority for agriculture. So to Paco, and to all of the other tire repair technicians, we thank you!


Specialty Agriculture in Iowa: Alpaca Farming

Alpaca at R & K’s Alpaca Farm in Sigourney, Iowa

Did you know alpacas make great lawnmowers? Unlike other animals that graze, alpacas only chew to the midway point of the grass blades rather than eating the whole plant. This allows the grass to be trimmed rather than the whole plant being uprooted.

Alpacas are native to the high elevations of South America where temperatures can be very low. This allows the alpacas to withstand brutal Iowa winters. In Iowa, there are only 2,558 alpacas registered in the Alpaca Owners Association INC. Their diets are composed of grain and grass, which allows them to be low maintenance. Alpacas are also known for screeching when in danger or pain. This screeching noise is how they get the attention of other alpacas for assistance.


Group of Alpacas at R & K’s Alpaca Farm in Sigourney, Iowa

When alpacas have reached the age between one year and 18 months, they have matured enough to be bred. The male alpacas are kept in separate pens from the females as they can cause problems to females that are not mature yet. During the breeding process, the male is introduced to the female roughly every two weeks. Once the female has conceived, she will sometimes spit at the male along with running from him. When this occurs there is a 95% chance that the female has conceived. The female alpaca’s gestation period (how long they are pregnant) is around one year long! Alpacas are known for giving birth between 7:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. because of their inability to protect their baby, which are called cria, from predators. This time period of daylight allows the mother to get the cria cleaned, nursing, and into shelter before sunset. These crias typically weigh between 12 and 20 pounds when they are born. The mother and cria hum and cluck with each other the communicate and connect. After the female alpaca has given birth, she is receptive to being bred within two to six weeks later which starts this process over again.


Fiber being processed at R & K’s Alpaca Boutique in Sigourney, Iowa

Alpacas are sheared once a year, with this process being comparable to a person getting a haircut. Here in Iowa, alpacas are typically sheared during the late spring. This shearing process is relieving to the alpaca as the fiber that an alpaca produces can restrict the animal from cooling off, especially during the summer heat. The alpacas are laid on their side to be sheared with the switching of sides to reach the whole animal. Shearing tends to be a quick process, which relates to less stress on the animal. Most alpacas produce anywhere between 5 and 10 pounds of fiber each year. After the shearing is complete, the fiber that is collected is then processed. The fiber can be processed into many different items including socks, blankets, stuffed animals, dryer balls, etc.

Fun Facts

  • Alpacas are known for relieving themselves (pooping) in the same spot.
  • Their feces is commonly used for fertilizing plants indoors because their feces does not have an odor.
  • Chickens can be a good asset to the alpacas because they eat parasites and bugs that bother the alpacas.
  • Alpacas are her animals so they should be bought in pairs. They have little to no defense without another and they do not like to be alone. It has been said they can die of loneliness.
  • There are only two breeds of alpacas, but many colors.
  • Alpacas were first introduced in the United States in 1984.


~ Lauren