Unique Agriculture Commodities: Pearls

A few weeks ago, I was looking for inspiration for a #FridayFarmFact. I was trying to find something that was out of the ordinary and branched beyond the corn and soybean field. This led me to thinking about my time in Muscatine, Iowa. Muscatine used to be a hub for harvesting mussels from the Mississippi River to create pearl buttons. It was a whole town affair with pop-up button factories, and you can still find remains of the pearl button industry as you dig down into the soil. Though pearl buttons aren’t pearls (they are actually created out of the shells of mussels), it got me wondering, where do pearls come from, and are they truly as rare as people say they are?

What is a Pearl?

Pearls are biological gemstones that develop into a wide variety of colors (e.g., black, gray, silver, green, purple, blue, etc.). They form in freshwater and saltwater bivalve-mollusks such as oysters, clams, and mussels. These gemstones can develop naturally as an irritant enters the mollusk. In response to the irritant, the mollusk secretes enzymes and calcium byproducts to form a tissue known as nacre around the irritant that is resemblant to its inner shell, much like when we form a scar. Over the next 3-5 years the tissue continues to grow and deposits calcium carbonate in smooth layers creating what we know as a pearl. To simplify this, think of a pebble that might get into your shoe. Overtime, your body might develop a blister to help protect your foot from the pebble. Eventually, the skin of your foot would toughen up to prevent the pebble from hurting you. In the case of an oyster something as small as a piece of sand might be the irritant that gets in and causes the mollusk to start forming the nacre. Natural pearls are rare and finding a “perfect” pearl is even rarer. This rarity, and the demand for pearls, has sparked a market for the cultivated, or human induced, pearl.  

White and pink pearls
(photo courtesy of James St. John)

How are pearls cultivated?

As in most cultivation, pearl farmers do not reinvent the wheel; rather, they utilize and optimize what occurs when Mother Nature is left alone. Thus, the pearl forms in the same way that a natural pearl would, however, specialized tools and growing conditions are used in cultivation farms to develop the “perfect” pearl. Most pearl cultivation farms can be found in Japan, China, and Indonesia. These locations are ideal for cultivation because of the water quality, temperature, and nutrient availability. The cultivation of pearls can be broken down into six main steps (watch this VIDEO to see them in detail):

Step 1: Grow host oysters or mussels

Oyster or mussel sperm is placed in a tank with eggs (oyster or mussel) for fertilization and the development of a larvae. These tanks are carefully monitored for temperature, minerals, and acidity to make sure the mollusk will have the best conditions for growth. The late larval stage of the mollusk will cling onto the hanging mesh in the tanks. Feeding these mollusks 2-3 times a day allows them to reach the proper maturity to be transferred to open calm waters within a month. Here, the mollusks will grow until they are the proper size for seeding.

Life cycle of an oyster
(graphic courtesy of Wallace et al, 2008)

Step 2: Seeding

The first step of seeding is to create the seed, or nucleus bead. No, the seed won’t sprout a pearl, it’s not like a plant seed. In this process, a donor mollusk is cut open and a round nucleus bead is made from the shell. This little piece of shell (or seed) is surgically placed inside the mollusk with a piece of donor tissue (called a graft) and will serve as the irritant to start the pearl. This process takes steady hands and careful precision, so the mollusk isn’t harmed. The bead’s size will help determine the overall size of the pearl. I like to think of this process like priming a wall with paint, you prepare the wall so that the color in the end comes out the way you want it.  Same with seeding the mollusk.

Placing a seed and donor tissue into an oyster for pearl cultivation
(photo courtesy of Shawn Harguail)

Step 3: Rest and Recover

After seed surgery, the mollusks are placed in containers and back into calm open waters of the ocean or lake. As their wound heals, farm workers use technology to x-ray the mollusks to determine if the seed was accepted, and to determine the progression of the pearl. If the seeding was accepted, the mollusks are then hung either by a rope through their shells or laid in baskets for the remainder of the pearl making process.

Creation of the nucleus seed of an oyster (left) and pearl formation (right)
(illustration courtesy of C. Montagnani)

Step 4: Grow Pearl

As the pearl continues to grow, the mollusks are moved from cooler waters to warmer waters to ensure that the animal doesn’t die, and optimal pearl growth occurs. Throughout the growth process the mollusks are collected and cleaned to get rid of parasites that could damage the animals. This stage of pearl production can take anywhere from 10 months to 3 years depending on the size of pearl.

Hanging of mollusks for growing pearls in baskets (A) and on a line (B)
(photo courtesy of Simon-Colin et al, 2015)

Step 5: Harvest 

Mollusks are cut in half and the pearl is extracted from the meat. If it is an oyster, part of the meat may be conserved and sold as Ise-Shima, a delicacy in Japan. The pearls are washed and rinsed and sorted through to find the perfect pearls. It may take up to 10,000 pearls to find enough desired pearls to make a 16” necklace.

Harvesting of oysters
(photo courtesy of Asian Development Bank)

Step 6: Develop Product

Pearls require no polishing or shaping. After they are washed and sorted, they are exported to factories and shops where they are used to create a wide variety of jewelry such as rings, earrings, necklaces, and more.   

Example of a pearl necklace, a possible end product for cultivated pearls
(photo courtesy of HarshLight)

Pearls in the United States

Though most pearls are cultivated in Asia, we do have one freshwater pearl cultivation farm in the United States. Located in Camden, Tennessee, the Tennessee River Freshwater Pearl Farm was started by John Latendresse (1925-2000). Latendresse utilized the Washboard mussel, an indigenous freshwater mussel in the Tennessee river, and culturing techniques from Japan to cultivate the pearls. Through years of research and trial and error, Latendresse and his family perfected cultivating techniques and developed new ones to create pearls of varying shapes such as coins and duck wings. They started a business for their pearls, American Pearl Company, to branch across markets and industry. At the farms peak it was worth roughly $50 million. Today the farm is owned by Bob Keast, and though it is still an operational farm, most of the farm’s income is acquired through agritourism.  You can visit the farm and stay in one of their cabins along the bay, go on boat tours, hunt for pearls, or view and purchase pearls in their onsite museum.

My Takeaways

Natural pearls are still a rare find, however, the need to search the ocean and riverbeds for mollusks bearing gems has declined (and is illegal in some areas). The farming and cultivation of pearls has tremendously changed the market and rarity of the once sought-after pearl. Through the advancement of technology and biological understanding we are now able to meet the demand for such a valuable commodity in a more sustainable way. And though pearls may not be as rare as they once were, a perfect high-quality pearl still is.


Clover & Agriculture

Every year many people around the world celebrate St. Patrick’s Day on March 17th. When thinking about St. Patrick’s Day, images of leprechauns, pots of gold, green, or Ireland might swarm your head. Did agriculture come to mind? One of the symbols of St. Patrick’s Day, the clover, is a valuable plant to farmers.

I’m not sure about you guys, but I spent a good chunk of my childhood outside intensely staring at the grass, searching for the lucky four-leaf clover. Sadly, after spending hours on the lookout, I never found one on my own.

Photo by Sudipta Mondal on Pexels.com

Clover or Shamrock?

It turns out I wasn’t even looking for a shamrock since a four-leaf clover is just a genetic mutation.

Shamrocks fall under the broad term of clover. Clover is the common name for the species in the Trifolium family, which translates to “having three leaves.” It’s kind of like how dogs, foxes, and wolves all fall under the canine family.

If you ask a botanist or the Irish what kind of Trifolium a shamrock is, most likely, you are going to get at least two different answers. Most botanists believe that the white clover is the same thing as a shamrock. In contrast, those staying true to the Irish tradition believe that the three leaves symbolize the Father, Son, and the Holy Spirit as taught by St. Patrick.

So, how do farmers use it?

While many probably recognize clover growing in their lawns, some farmers will grow it in their fields as a cover crop. Cover crops are planted to reduce erosion between growing seasons and add organic matter to the soil. To learn more about cover crops, check out the blog post “Cover Cropping. Why Do They Do That?”

According to Practical Farmers of Iowa, it is one of the best possible cover crop options. They describe it as the “Cadillac of cover crops.” Clover has many, many benefits as a cover crop. As a legume, it helps contribute nitrogen to the soil, it reduces soil erosion, and it helps limit the number of weeds in the field. Clover also helps a lot with the soil’s moisture hold capacity and water retention, which is great for those dry summers like we had last year.

Photo by Zhanna Fort on Pexels.com

Clover and livestock

Not only do farmers use clover as cover crops, but some feed their livestock with it as well. Integrating clover in pastures through a process called overseeding has its benefits: increase of yield, improve animal performance, Nitrogen fixation and grazing season extension, to name a few. Adding clover to a pasture will help the soil, the livestock and other grasses, but it does come with a warning.

Farmers need to be careful because too much clover could cause bloating. An abundance of clover consumption may cause cattle or other livestock species to have a gas buildup and can be very dangerous if this leads to pressure on the internal organs.

There are ways to prevent this bloating. Farmers can mix the clover with other grass species in the pasture, wait to feed livestock clover until it is drier or rotate their grazing.

Despite these risks, few farmers cut out clover feeding entirely due to its significant protein and fiber amount.


Other than the shamrock around St. Patrick’s Day, another famous clover is the clover emblem of 4-H. 4-H is a youth development organization for 4th-12th graders where members can create projects in health, science, or agriculture fields. The four-leaf clover emblem representing the 4-H organization has an “H” on each leaf, meaning head, heart, hands and health.

As you are celebrating St. Patrick’s Day this year, don’t just think about all of the green you’re going to wear, but think about how much agriculture is tied into this holiday!


Why Do They Do That? –Irrigation

Most of us are familiar with weather and know that it is not consistent every year, and rain doesn’t always come when farmers need it. This is why some large fields resort to using some kind of irrigation system. Even though you may see a large irrigation system while driving down the road, it is helpful to note that most of Iowa’s cropland is not irrigated. According to the USDA, other states outside of the Midwest, such as California, Nebraska, Arkansas, and Idaho, rely more heavily on irrigation systems. This is due to their irregular and infrequent precipitation.

Using this method of irrigation systems to water crops, farmers can control their crops’ water requirements if there is not enough rainfall. Like many things in the agriculture industry, the control of these irrigations systems can be automated and can be done right from the farmer’s phone or tablet. With different technologies, farmers can adjust the water pressure, the amount of water, and more without even being on the field, similar to how you could control your home’s security or temperature with smart technology while being on the road. As advanced as this may seem, these irrigation systems continually advance with the rest of the agriculture industry with solar-powered irrigation systems being implemented more widely in the future.

Photo by Adrianna Calvo on Pexels.com

When deciding what kind of irrigation system to use, farmers have several choices: sprinkler vs. drip and center pivot vs. linear.

sprinkler irrigation system:

This system imitates rainfall by distributing the water above the field surface, allowing it to fall on the crops and soil. All plants on the field should receive the same amount of water, hopefully resulting in similar growth. This system is one of the most popular kinds of irrigation, and you probably have seen them in the fields at one time or another. This system is also similar to what many homeowners use to water their lawns. Like every system, sprinkler irrigation has some advantages and disadvantages. A farmer may decide to go with the sprinkler system because of the reduced cost of overall farm labor and reduced soil erosion. Another farmer may opt out of sprinkler irrigation because of the high initial cost of pipes, motors, and installation, and because of the high water loss due to evaporation.

drip irrigation system:

Compared to a sprinkler system, the drip irrigation system can be more efficient than a sprinkler system because the water is being dripped from a lower point, drop by drop (there is less evaporation water loss). With this kind of system, the soil soaks in the droplets before they can evaporate or be blown away by the wind. The water is applied closer to the roots where it is truly needed. Although drip irrigation may seem like the more beneficial choice, there are some downfalls, including that the water outlets get clogged because they are in direct contact with the ground. These systems also take a lot of training to understand the machine and manage the system.

center-pivot irrigation system:

This type of sprinkler irrigation is just what it sounds like: a mechanical system that moves in a circle with a center point. This machine can also be used to apply fertilizers and pesticides. The chemicals are mixed into the water as the water is sprayed onto the field. This multipurpose system can be used on a variety of crops, including vegetables and fruit trees. The center point is usually a permanent, stationary point where the water is pumped up from an underground well. The long arm of the system stretches across half the field and as it moves in a circle, it waters the entire field. The arm is supported by large wheels that travel across the ground and hold the arm up. If you’ve traveled in a plane over Midwest states like Nebraska, Kansas, and Colorado and looked out the window, you’ve likely noticed the circular fields. Each one of those fields has a center-pivot irrigation system on it.

Photo by Mark Stebnicki on Pexels.com

Linear Irrigation System:

Linear irrigation systems are marketed to irrigate 98% of the field by traveling across the field in a straight line, forward, and reverse working best in square or rectangular fields. This system is another example of a sprinkler system. The water used is either taken from underground or a hose that drags behind the machine’s wheeled cart. In a linear irrigation system, soil compaction is reduced. It is also easier to work in windier conditions, unlike the center-pivot system because they are lower to the ground. Center-pivot systems can work on tall crops like corn. Linear irrigation system are better for shorter crops like alfalfa.

Now that we know what types of irrigation systems are out there, the final question is, why use them? With this kind of technology, crops can be watered in a controlled environment where the lack of rain can be less of a burden on farmers and their yield. Controlling the amount of water applied in a slow and steady manner can lead to less runoff and erosion. Plus, the time that farmers would typically take using more complex kinds of irrigation can now be spent perfecting other areas of the field or farm operation.

Next time you see one of these systems as your driving down the road, now you will have a better idea of what it does! If you’re a farmer, let us know in the comments what works best for you!


Hi! My name is Madison Paine and I am the education programs intern at IALF for the next year. I am currently a junior at Iowa State University studying agriculture communications. I grew up on an acreage outside of Maxwell, IA where my love for agriculture first sparked. I am very excited to be here and can’t wait to see what this next year all entails!

A Day in the Life of a Truck Driver

Farming is like a puzzle in that it has many pieces. A farmer grows the crop and cares for the livestock but what then? Can he or she do it all by themselves? Who delivers the farmer their seed to plant? Who delivers the veterinarian their supplies for animals? How does the crop get delivered to where it is needed – like the local grain elevator or co-op? The answer to those questions is a semi-truck and driver, the number one job in America. One in every 15 workers in the country is employed in the trucking business.

As an Agriculture in the Classroom program coordinator, I have had the opportunity to present the lesson, Many Hats of an Iowa Farmer. In this lesson, students learn about all of the different jobs a farmer gets to do on the farm. But a modern-day farmer requires many more hats than any one person could wear at the same time.

That makes a lot of sense when you think about it, since almost everything a farmer needs for the farm, or sells from the farm, is hauled and transported by truck. Literally and figuratively speaking, the truck driver is the one who connects all of the pieces. They are sort of the Modge Podge, or the glue, of the farming community.

But what does it take to be a truck driver? I asked our friend, owner and operator Joe Leaders who works together with his dad, to tell me what a day looks like from behind his very large windshield. 

Joe learned how to drive truck from his father and was required to take a special test when he wanted to drive a truck commercially. A Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) is needed in order to legally drive a semi-truck on the roads. Driving a Commercial Motor Vehicle (CMV) like a semi-truck requires a higher level of knowledge, experience, skills, and physical abilities than is required to drive a non-commercial vehicle like your family’s car. Semi-trucks are much bigger than cars and having additional training and experience helps keep them and you safe on roadways.

“You try to keep costs low by being your own mechanic. You tend to get good at maintaining your vehicle.” Part of Joe’s fleet of trucks also includes four different kinds of trailers: a grain trailer, a  flatbed trailer, a pot, or livestock trailer and a drive-in trailer, also called box trailer. He is able to help farmers and agribusinesses transport a lot of different types of materials with all of these different trailers.

In order to transport their load and cargo safely, a driver needs to know what they are hauling each day and how to hook up or attach to the appropriate trailer to the truck. One semi-truck can pull many different kinds of trailers. When loading livestock, it is important to be aware of the size of animal, what they weight, and how to properly load them so that  their semi and trailer, also called a rig, stays balanced.

Knowing the height and weight restrictions for each road is a very important part of a truck driver’s job. Every road has a limit of how much weight a semi-truck can haul. Carrying too much weight in the semi-truck and trailer could damage the road and might be unsafe for the driver. The weight of a semi-truck and trailer is spread out onto all of the vehicle’s axles. It take a bit of math and knowing how many axles your equipment runs to make sure you are staying “road legal”. Heavier loads may still be road legal if the weight is distributed across more axels. Eighty thousand pounds is the weight limit for most trucks. However during the COVID -19 pandemic more goods have needed to be shipped and transported. Joe and other truckers received permits allowing them to carry slightly heavier loads. Even when some areas are shut down, agriculture materials still need to be trucked to the places. Going under bridges can also be a problem for  truck drivers. Drivers need to know exactly how tall the truck and trailer is and what is the bridge’s maximum clearance. Most bridges on public roads have a clearance of at least 14 feet. Most trucks have a maximum height of 13 feet, 6 inches so that they can safely pass under.

The seed that needs to be planted each season, fertilizer that is applied to fields, livestock which farmers raise to sell, equipment that is purchased from dealerships, and the food that farmers eat themselves is delivered across the county by hard working truckdrivers. They spend hours on the road sometimes away from their families for days at a time. Truckers are required to keep a logbook, tracking their miles and hours, and making sure not exceed the 12 hours of drive time. Some things need to be hauled and transported over long distances. These journeys – sometimes across the country might take several days. Joe has traveled from Iowa to states as far away as Georgia. Everyone in America relies on truck drivers like Joe to bring them almost every item they eat, use or wear.

Joe says, “The best part of driving truck is going new places and meeting new people. And showing my sons around the country when they have the chance to ride with me.”

Do you know a truck driver in your life? Extend a great big thank you to each and every one!


All things mint!

The holidays bring about warm memories of family get togethers, present exchanges, and favorite activities to do with our daughters. While making a few Christmas treats, the aroma of mint was in the air which reminded my daughters of their summer garden.

This past summer, my girls and I started growing some herbs as an easy summer project. Mint was the favorite herb that they liked to pick. They enjoyed smelling it and using it in their drinks.

Mint is one agricultural product that reaches millions of people every day. Let’s take a closer look at how mint is grown and used in everyday products.

The Mentha Genus

Photo Source: Washington Mint Growers Association

Mint belongs to the Mentha Genus. There are many varieties of homegrown mint, however, two main species of mint are grown for agricultural production purposes – the Mentha Piperita and the Mentha Spicata. There is also a lesser known, cheaper variety of mint known as Mentha Arvensis.

The state of Washington is the world’s largest mint-producing area. It is also grown in California, Idaho, Indiana, Oregon, and Wisconsin. Mint oil is located in the glands on the undersides of the leaves. Professional odor evaluators can tell you exactly where a particular mint was grown and when it was cut just by the taste differences.  

Mint is a perennial plant. Farmers often grow mint for four years and then rotate it with other crops like soybean or corn. For example, a farmer will typically plant mint the first year in rows. In the subsequent three years, the field looks more like a meadow as the plant expands its root system. If you’ve ever seen an alfalfa field, that’s what a mint field would be like. You can learn why farmers rotate their crops in one of our past blog posts.

Photo Source: Washington Mint Growers Association

How is Mint Oil Made?

The mint plant is harvested once or twice a year depending on the variety and region it is being grown in. The entire plant is harvested then it is steam distilled to extract the essential oil, which is the commodity that farmers sell. There isn’t a large, open market for selling mint oil, so farmers mainly grow mint under contract from processors.

How Farms Work, a channel on YouTube, has created a three-part video series on mint oil. Watch this part three video where they show how mint oil is extracted. You can watch part one here, and part two here.

How is Mint Used?

Mint oil is found in a variety of products – toothpaste, mouthwash, gum, candy, beauty products, and more.

One of its earliest known uses was when ancient Greeks rubbed it on their arms, thinking it would make them stronger. It’s also been used in the past to treat stomach aches and chest pains. In more modern uses, research is being conducted to see if it can help treat irritable bowel syndrome.

Photo Source Pexels.com

Mint is used in drinks like Mint Mojitos to give them a refreshing flavor. It’s also used in anything from syrups and candies to ice cream and curries.

You might not know that mint can also be used as an insecticide to kill common pests such as wasps, hornets, and ants.

Mint Facts (sources: Mint Industry Research Council, Idaho Mint)

  • 45 percent of mint oil produced in the U.S. is used for flavoring chewing gum.
  • 45 percent used to flavor dentifrices (toothpaste, mouthwash, etc.).
  • 10 percent is used for flavor in the confectionary, pharmaceutical, liquor, and aromatherapy industries.
  • One 400-pound drum (barrel) of mint oil will flavor more than five million sticks of chewing gum.
  • One pound of mint oil will produce approximately 1,000 tubes of toothpaste or 50,000 mint candies.
  • There is about one drop of mint in a tube of toothpaste.

Want to grow some mint at home? Check out this article.

Tell us in the comments what your favorite mint product is!


Sources and Additional Reading

Extracting the Essence of Mint
How Your Toothpaste Gets So Minty Fresh
Mint Industry Research Council
Plant of the Month: Mint

7 Factors that Affect Where Food is Produced


Have you ever wondered why Idaho is known for potatoes or why so many pigs are raised in Iowa?  Or why California and Wisconsin are first and second in dairy when the two states are so different?

Many livestock and crop species can be grown in all 50 states. Corn, for example, is grown in all states but 90% of the U.S. production comes from farms in the Midwest.  Why is this?

What is grown in each state largely depends on the land and climate. High and low temperatures and precipitation determine what crops farmers plant, but there are other environmental and economic factors that determine what crops and livestock are grown where. Let’s take closer a look at each of the variables that determine where food and fiber are produced.

1. Climate & weather

Climate and weather are the same right?  Not quite. Weather is what it feels like outside on any given day. It includes temperature, precipitation from rain or snow, wind, humidity, cloudiness, and atmospheric pressure.  Weather can move and change rapidly. As the old saying goes, if you don’t like the weather in Iowa, wait five minutes.   

An area’s climate is determined by average weather conditions and trends over many years. For example, the Pacific Northwest has a cool, wet climate, the Southwest is generally hot and dry, and the Upper Midwest and Northeastern regions are known for their cold winters.

Although weather is variable and can change from year-to-year, a location’s climate determines the main crops farmers grow. The climate of Midwestern states like Iowa and Illinois is perfectly suited for growing corn and soybeans. Warm nights, hot days, and well-distributed rainfall during the summer months are ideal for both crops.

Weather also plays a role in where livestock is raised. Before modern livestock barns were used, the broiler chicken industry was established in the Southeast largely because of its climate. Chickens don’t fare well in extreme temperatures, especially harsh winters.

The dairy industry has grown in California and other states with mild climates. This is in-part because farmers can expand their herds using lower-cost dry lots instead of investing in four-season barns that are a necessity in Wisconsin and New York.

2. Growing season length

This factor is directly related to climate & weather, but I’ll discuss it separately since it plays such a large role in where certain crops are predominantly grown.

The growing season, or freeze-free period, is the period of the year when conditions are favorable for crops and other plants to grow. In temperate locations, with warm summers and cold winters, the growing season is determined by temperature. It generally becomes shorter as the distance from the Equator increases, so in the United States, the growing season is shorter in northern states and longer in southern states.

Elevation also affects the growing season. Higher elevations are cooler and have a shorter growing season. This can cause the growing season within one state to vary greatly. In California, for example, areas in the Sierra Nevada mountains have a much shorter growing season than land along the state’s coast.

Growing season length is determined by the average number of days between the last killing frost in the spring and the first killing frost in the fall. Most crops that are direct seeded, like corn, wheat, and rice, need a growing season of at least 90-120 days. Annual fruits and vegetables generally require a shorter period from planting to harvest, especially those that are transplanted outside as seedlings.

So why does growing season length matter if most U.S. locations have a long enough growing season for all crops?  It comes down to economics. It is more profitable to grow fresh fruits and vegetables in areas with a longer growing season.

Sweet corn, for example, is only harvested in Iowa from July through early September.  Farmers in Palm Beach County Florida, on the other hand, harvest sweet corn from October to June. Their long growing season enables them to stagger planting dates and have income from the perishable crop most of the year. Because of this, Florida usually ranks first or second in fresh-market sweet corn production and Iowa doesn’t make the top 20.

While tomatoes are grown in every state, if you’re buying fresh tomatoes in the grocery store they probably came from Florida or California.  These two states regularly contribute more than two-thirds of the country’s fresh tomatoes.

3. Soil & topography

Soil varies as much across the United States as the weather does. And that’s a good thing because different crops thrive in different types of soils.

Vidalia® onions’ large size and sweet flavor is linked to the unique soil of where they grow. The sweet onions are only grown in the mild climate and unique soil surrounding Vidalia, Georgia. The region is so famous for its onion growing success, that Georgia passed the Vidalia Onion Act of 1986 which authorized a trademark for the unique onion and limited its production to 20 counties in southern Georgia.

Idaho is synonymous with potatoes and that is largely because of soil, too. Potatoes are predominantly grown in eastern Idaho, a region with volcanic soil that is ideal for growing the state’s famous spuds. Volcanic ash once covered this area.  As it slowly eroded, it created a soil that is dark, rich, well-drained, and packed with minerals.

While soil is extremely important in determining what farmers raise, other physical features of the land are important too.  Areas that are too rocky, rough, or hilly to grow crops, can be well suited for grazing cattle and sheep. This is why ranching is common in western states.

4. Access to feed

Unless livestock is grazing on pasture, they will consume a substantial amount of feed, and that feed usually accounts for the largest cost of raising livestock.

Raising livestock close to where feed ingredients are grown saves in trucking costs to transport feed. This is why Iowa is the top producing pork and egg state. All of those pigs and chickens eat the corn and soybeans farmers grow here.

5. Proximity to fertilizer sources or a market for byproducts

There’s another reason why pigs and laying hens are raised in Iowa. They provide a valuable resource for Iowa’s corn crop. Manure! 

Corn plants use large quantities of nitrogen, and manure is an excellent source of nitrogen. Farmers who grow corn and raise pigs can produce crops for a lower price because they don’t need to purchase as much fertilizer. 

6. Markets and proximity to processors

Market availability is one of the biggest factors that trigger crop and livestock expansion in an area. Farmers may want to try growing a different crop or type of livestock, but without an end-user, or market, it will not be profitable. 

The location of processors and where crops and livestock are raised go hand in hand.  Sometimes current production causes processors to move to an area (i.e.: ethanol plants in Iowa), but other times the addition of a new processing facility causes a substantial increase of production in an area. The latter is especially true in the canned and frozen vegetable industry.   

While most fresh market sweet corn is produced in California and Florida, Washington and Minnesota ranked first and second in the amount of sweet corn grown for processing. This is because major canned and frozen vegetable processors, including Green Giant and Birds Eye, are located there. These companies contract local farmers to grow the crops they need. Contract production is beneficial for both the famers and the processors. Farmers get a guaranteed price for what they produce, and the processor gets an assured supply what they need when they need it.    

According to the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service, in 2019 Illinois produced over 3.5 times more pounds of pumpkins than the second-ranked state. Why is this? It is home to Libby’s Pumpkin, which produces 85% of the world’s pumpkin.

Growing crops close to where they are sold is especially important for perishable crops, but it also reduces trucking costs of non-perishable commodities.  

7. Government Policy

Federal and state government policies regarding land use, labor, irrigation, and commodity prices have a direct impact on agriculture production too.

State water policies vary by state and regulate ground and surface water use. Water policies are especially important in states that depend on irrigation. Colorado recently passed a law that allows ranchers’ historical stock watering rights to stay first in line when dry conditions trigger cutbacks.    

States also have different policies for how commodity prices are set. Until 2018, California used a different system for determining milk prices than most other dairy-producing states. California dairy farmers led the push for the state to change to a  Federal Milk Marketing Order system because they were making less on milk sold for hard cheese production than dairy producers in other states.

Favorable or unfavorable policies can affect what crop and livestock industries thrive or decline in an area.     

It is rare that only one of these factors determines the success of a crop or livestock species in an area.  Multiple factors usually come into play, and what is produced where changes over time. Just because an agricultural product is featured on a state’s license plate, doesn’t mean it will always reign supreme there. 

– Cindy

Helping Students Relate to Lessons about Agriculture

“Oh! I get it!” These sweet words are music to a teacher’s ear. The exclamation of understanding that erupts from a student might just be the reason teachers continue their dedicated service. It doesn’t matter whether the child had been working on a subject for two weeks or two minutes, the joy is the same. This student understands!

As an Agriculture in the Classroom coordinator it is always interesting spending time in classrooms. Grade to grade and school to school, lesson topics tend to vary wildly. From learning about pumpkins with PreK, to mixing up soil with third graders, and then creating lessons on lavender as a specialty crop for middle school students, agriculture is the underlying principle in all of our lessons. It’s really one of the most significant things in our lives. So how do you get kids interested in agriculture? How do you help them understand the role food, fuels, and fibers play in their lives. And finally, guide them to find their own role in agriculture?

There are many ways to make agriculture relatable to students:

  1. Compare agriculture vocabulary with something they already know about.

How big is an acre?

“Acre” is a word not many kinds would know. Plus mentioin43,560 square feet is kind of hard to imagine. However, even the youngest of learners can recognize the familiar 100 yards of a football field (not including the end zones).

How much corn is in a bushel?

To all my fellow agriculture enthusiasts, I am about to make a confession. I grew up in the city and had no idea what a bushel of corn was. And I didn’t have a clue what it weighed. I had seen antique stores sell “bushel baskets” and I thought a dozen ears of corn would fit nicely, so in my agriculturally illiterate mind… 12. Twelve ears of corn was a bushel. Wasn’t I amazed to discover it’s more like 112. And it weighs 56 pounds. Or as much as an eight-year-old.

How much does a combine weigh?

Kids are impressed by the giant equipment that farmers use to grow the food that feeds the world. Tractor wheels taller than a grown up and combines as tall as a small house are awe inspiring. But an educator can’t always bring these things into the classroom with them. Pictures are great and a chance to have a FarmChat® virtual field trip is even better. Otherwise, make your words descriptive and compare it to something they already know.  A John Deere combine, depending on the model, might weight 30,000 pounds, that’s as much as two school busses, or six elephants.

2. Bring lots of examples with you to class or have lots of pictures available for your virtual lesson. You can describe the difference between treated and untreated soybean seed, or you can show students. You can talk about the nitrogen fixing nodules on the roots of a soybean plant, or you can bring in examples, pulled out of the field that very morning.

3. Use the changing seasons to teach about what is happening on the farm. In November, we talk turkey. In January, it’s winter on the farm. Spring is an excellent opportunity to talk about the beginning of life cycles. Egg hatching programs and the baby chicks offer a hands-on opportunity for kids to learn about what happens in an animal’s lifecycle.

So whether you are a born and bred city gal like me, or an experienced farmer who’s taken a plow around a field a time or two, we can all agree agriculture is relatable and important to students. It’s our job to help them understand how and why.


What a Perfect Time for a FarmChat® Virtual Field Trip!

Students in Iowa have returned to school. Some classes are being held in person while some students are connecting with teachers online. No matter what the school day looks like, an opportunity to visit a real farm is hard to pass up. Sign the permission slips? Pack the lunches? Send home reminders to wear layers and appropriate shoes? Load up the buses? Drive for miles and miles IF the weather is right? Or… skip all the hassle and schedule a FarmChat® virtual field trip! 

While actual field trips require days, if not weeks of planning and are being postponed due to the pandemic, a FarmChat® program is the ideal alternative solution. FarmChat®, or a virtual field trip, is a program that utilizes technology (Skype, FaceTime and other software platforms) to bring the farm experience directly into school classrooms. Using a laptop at the school and a mobile device at the farm, students connect with and directly speak with the farmer. Students can see the farm and ask the farmer questions. They can even virtually ride along in the combine or tour a livestock barn all from the safety and security of their classroom. A virtual field trip!

Benefits of a FarmChat® virtual field trip include:

  • Safety. Most working farms are not able to host large number of students. Real farms can hold real dangers if students have not been properly instructed about farm safety. Teachers are able to focus on the topics intended and the learning if students are not required to be shepherded from place to place.
  • Experiences. It can be difficult or impossible to show 25-30 students the same thing at the same time. While 2-3 are watching a cow be milked the rest of a class may decide to test out their “waterproof” boots in a nearby puddle. Focusing on the screen in a classroom allows the entire group to experience the details as if they were watching in person. Also, a working farm has many different sights, sounds, and smells. By visiting from their classrooms, students can see and hear the farmer better then if they were standing in a large group.
  • Saving time. The virtual field trip will last around 20-30 minutes. In that time kids can focus on the experience, and then return to their regularly scheduled day. This means less time away from school and more time to discuss what students have learned.
  • No permission slips. Having a virtual field trips allows students to explore a real farm, without leaving the school grounds.
  • No transportation costs. Students are engaged and focused on the farm directly from their desks. With no need to find a bus driver or arrange for transportation, schools are not limited by funding.
  • Standards. By taking students on a virtual field trip they are able to make real world connections to the topics they are learning in school.

Harrison County farmer explains the process, as well as some of the challenges, of baling hay during a summer FarmChat®.

Local farmers are interested in sharing what they do. And teachers want to teach about local crops and livestock. Connecting the components has never been easier and is only limited by the connectivity of a cellular network. Here is a list of frequently asked questions that can help with planning a FarmChat® program.

Start planning your FarmChat® a virtual farm experience today. Reach out to your local county coordinator and let your virtual ag-venture begin.


Unique Farming Challenges – Armadillos?

Agriculture and the nature of farming is rarely easy sailing. Numerous challenges come up each day and throughout the growing season. A lot of success depends on the weather, picking the right products for a particular field, applying support products to a field at the best time, and controlling insects and other pests, among other factors. While the challenges may seem routine over time, some farmers in certain areas of the world do encounter unique situations.

Imagine you’re a scientist working at an agriculture company and another department leader comes to you with a unique pest problem – specifically armadillos.

That’s right…armadillos.

giant armadillo

Image source: Zoo Chat

This is an actual challenge that faced scientists in South America.

Growing products in South America
Just like in Iowa, corn and soybeans are grown in South American countries like Brazil and Argentina. They plant their fields much like farmers in Iowa do. They first start to prepare the field – tilling the soil, applying fertilizers, spraying for weeds or any combination of those practices. Farmers will use their planting machines to plant organized rows of seeds on each acre of land. These machines are typically large tractors.


Soybean Field in Iowa

As the plants begin to grow, agronomists will walk the fields to check on the plants and see how they’re growing. Agronomists can help farmers identify issues such as nutrient deficiencies, insect and weed problems, among others.

Both tractors and people, like the agronomists, travel over the fields in an orderly fashion due to how the field is planted in rows. But what could happen if an animal who wanders aimlessly is also in the field?

The challenge of working with armadillos
Armadillos dig holes wherever they go searching for insects to eat. Underneath those small holes are likely large burrows. The challenge that’s happening is that tractors have fallen into these holes and people have twisted their ankles by stepping in the holes.

Agriculture companies have brainstormed and researched this challenge. Ideas like ‘what if you put up flags in the field whenever you see a hole?’ or ‘can we put up fences to keep the armadillos out?’ Many different scenarios have been researched and discussed. After discussing options the scientists decided they need to learn more about armadillos.

Facts about armadillos
After much discussion, the scientists needed to learn about the armadillo. Luckily, they had a zoologist on their team. A zoologist is someone who studies animals and their behavior, particularly their interactions with ecosystems. The scientists learned a few things about armadillos from the zoologist.

  • Did you know there are 20 species of armadillos? They are in the same family of animal as anteaters and sloths.
  • There are five specific types of armadillos in the region of South America where this challenge occurred. The armadillo species are the greater naked-tailed armadillo, nine-banded armadillo, six-banded armadillo, three-banded armadillo, and the giant armadillo. These are not all small armadillos. For example, the giant armadillo can weigh up to 73 lbs. and be as long as three feet (not including the tail).
  • Some of these armadillos are considered vulnerable species and cannot be harmed.

Farmers in Iowa might encounter animals that also dig in their fields but not quite like a three-foot-long armadillo!

So, what did the scientists do? You’ll have to watch the video to find out!

Want to challenge your classroom to solve the armadillo challenge?
The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has created a free lesson plan for middle school classrooms on this very topic. The lesson plan is tied to six standards in the Iowa Core Standards list. View this topic and the free lesson plan on our website. All the resources you need are included in this lesson plan.

Happy armadillo wrangling!

What’s a challenge that you’ve experienced farming or have heard someone else has experienced in farming? Want another challenge? Check out a few of the videos below to see how bees and honey are helping to save elephants in Africa, thereby helping farmers protect their crops.



Generations on the Farm

You’ve probably heard the phrase, “it takes village.” It is said when a collection of people all assist with the upbringing of a child. Parents, grandparents, aunts, uncles, church members, daycare providers, neighbors, and health care professionals all do their part for the good of a young one.

Farmer and son setting a corner post in a pasture.

Over the past 17 years, I have learned that successful farming takes generations. My husband is a third-generation farmer in Harrison County, Iowa. He is following in the footsteps of his father and his father’s father. My two sons are trying their hardest to be like dad, grandpa, and great grandpa. Many lessons have been learned throughout the years. Many techniques have changed. However, many of the fundamentals of farming remain and stand the test of time.

Many future farmers pursue college degrees in agronomy, agribusiness, animal science, or other fields to prepare themselves to help run the family farm. But answers to many questions are learned at the knees of dad and grandpa. Answers to questions like: When to plant seeds? What type of seeds to plant? Where in the field to plant it? When to turn the bulls out? And when to market your grain? As the family gathers around the tailgate during a meal in the field, many lessons can be shared with the next generation.

For us, farming isn’t just a way to make a living. It’s a way of life. This mentality is one reason I believe farms are passed down through the family. I’ve often said you’ve got to be a certain type of crazy to want to do this day after day. But, I married into a farm family. The love of the farm and the love of the farm lifestyle does not “run in my blood”. But even now, I see the natural aptitude my two sons develop as they watch dad fix fence or watch grandpa tag a calf. It’s almost as if they are learning a new language – a type of speaking that can’t be taught with books and lessons. It’s in their genes.

Two week old calf with an identification tag indicating she was the 13th calf born that spring.

Days on the farm run long and hard. There is always something to do, to fix, to plant, to move, to harvest, or to plan for next season. The working parts that make up a farm could rival those of a major corporations. Oh, wait, did I forget to mention, most farms are just that? Farms are family owned companies that handle large amounts of income and receivables and then send those amounts right back out with expenses. Most farm operations do so without the benefit of a highly paid chief financial officer (CFO). So the farmer needs to be a business person as well as a mechanic and a custodian. Financial decisions are challenging and I’ve heard my husband say, as the markets are falling, “Our field was worth more before we started harvesting.”

Day-to-day lessons on the farm largely revolve around the seasons and the work that needs to be completed on an annual cycle. So, here is a rundown of activities that happen on our farm and have for generations.

Spring – Early calving and planting

We turn the bulls out with the cows in May so they will calve in early to mid-February. This ensures we can raise the calves and sell them at a heavy weight later in the year. We sell them as feeder calves to feedlots. The feedlots will then continue to feed them grain and hay until they reach an appropriate weight for slaughter. We do keep a couple of calves and feed out or “finish” them, raising them to around 1,300 pounds. This will provide our family the beef we will eat for the year.

We plant corn and soybeans every spring rotating the crops to ensure the correct nutrients are available to each crop. Our goal is to plant corn seed on fields that were soybean fields last year. The soybeans work with natural bacteria in the soil to add nitrogen that the corn can then use. Sometimes we have to plant corn on corn but to do this we need to test the soil for nutrients. We then decide which is the best type of corn to plant and what kind of fertilizer or nutrients we may need to add to the field.

Summer – Baling hay, chopping silage, and fixing equipment

Cows eat all year long, even when there is no grass growing in late fall, winter, and very early spring. So, we need to prepare. We grow and bale our own alfalfa hay to feed the cattle all year long. The hay needs to be cut, then raked, then allowed to dry, sometimes raked again, and then baled. My two sons enjoy this job during the summer. On a good year we might get to repeat the process up to four times, “raking in” up to four cuttings of hay!

Round bale of hay in an alfalfa field.

Silage is the product of chopping the entire corn stalk in late summer, before the corn is dry. The chopped corn silage is then packed into a large pit and allowed to ferment, preparing it for winter feed. It has a distinct smell, but the cattle seem to enjoy it.

Chopping corn for silage.

Fall – Harvest

I’ve seen my father-in-law get up at 5 a.m. to do chores. Then, after the livestock are fed, he will wipe off the tractor windows, check the oil in the equipment, and start the combine as soon as the day warms up and the frost is gone. He then runs the combine until the noon meal arrives. We call it “dinner” and it’s a warm dish wrapped in towels and delivered by a pickup  Who drives the “feed wagon”?  Whoever is not running the auger wagon. For us, lunch is a good opportunity to take a needed break, have a nice hot meal, and stretch our legs. After lunch, there might still be another ten hours of work ahead, harvesting until it is dark. Lights on the tractor can even allow us to run the combine after dark which is both a blessing and a curse.

Winter – Caring for livestock and paperwork

Making sure animals have food and water on a winter day can sometimes take all day. Ensuring that livestock are protected from the elements and have food and water is the primary concern. Tractors that run the feed wagons take time to warm up and sometimes do not start right away. Waterers which provide fresh water to animals often freeze over and the ice needs to be broken or the water needs to be warmed up for the animals. Livestock feed is placed in feed bunks, but only after the snow is scooped out. Depending on how much it snowed, and how many feed bunks you have, this can take all morning.

When all the outdoor winter work is done, farmers can warm up inside and catch up on paperwork. Most farmers need to have a complete record of the year’s income and expenses before December 31. This helps them decide if some inputs for the next year could and should be purchased ahead of time. Our  accountant helps us record this information and file our taxes each year which is a big help to our farm.

Why do farmers do it? Why keep up with such hard work and a hectic pace of life, with little time for vacations? From what I have observed, it is for the love of the farm and love of the family you hope to one day pass it onto. By building something permanent and lasting, the farm means something. It means that we are helping feed and fuel the world. I can hold the soil in my hand and know with the proper care that same soil could help feed generations to come. I just realized, farming now “runs in my blood” too.