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:

How to “Look Under the Label”

Recently, I had the opportunity to speak to a women’s group at the 5th Annual Women Gaining Ground Conference presented by Women, Land & Legacy. There we were, many different women with many different backgrounds. Some in attendance were married with kids still living at home, while others were single and maybe still in school. And, there were women present who were wise with lots of valuable life experience. As I looked towards the audience and began my presentation, I pointed out a commonality that we all shared – we all eat!

I don’t know about you, but I try to eat three meals a day, with a snack in-between. As mothers and grandmothers, we feed not only ourselves, but our families too. Our families are the most important thing in the world to us, so we want to feed them the best and the healthiest options we can afford. A quick glance around any grocery store and you’ll be bombarded with many different messages. Grocery store aisles surround us with marketing messages including various food labels, that are trying to get our attention, capture our pocketbooks and claim that status of best and healthiest.

How marketing impacts food labeling

But what is the real story behind these labels? What do they mean? How can we sort out marketing speak from factual information that can have an impact on our health? The definition of marketing is “the action or business of promoting and selling products or services, including market research and advertising.” So, if food labels are marketing, what does this mean for us and how do they affect our decisions at the grocery store?

First, it’s important to recognize there are four types of food labels.

  1. Nutrition Facts labels: These are usually on the back or side of the packaging and are required by law on most packaged foods providing details of nutritional content.
  2. Health Claim labels: These describe the relationship between food and its health benefits or the reduced risk of a disease.
  3. Nutrient Content Claims labels: These are usually found on the front of the packaging and are voluntarily placed by food processing companies to help market their product.
  4. Farm Production Style labels: These describe the type of farming practices used, or not used in producing the food.

While looking at these labels, we should ask ourselves two questions. Is this label telling me something about the product? Or, is it using marketing tactics to convince me to buy the product? In researching the topic of food labeling, these two questions have challenged me to look at grocery shopping in a new way. When I pick up an item off of the shelf I have been asking myself, “Did the label tell me about an item or did the label sell me on an item?”

Labels that ‘tell you’ identify food with an objective, measurable difference from one package or brand to another. The “No Added Sugar” label is an ideal example. This claim can be measured in grams of sugar and verified using the Nutrition Facts Label which is regulated by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA). Choosing a diet with foods low in added sugar has been scientifically proven to help people maintain a healthy weight.

Labels that ‘sell you’ separate foods that don’t actually contain a measurable difference in safety, nutrition or other factors. While these foods may be produced in different ways (eggs produced by chickens housed in cages verses hens in free-range housing) the end product provides the same levels of food safety, quality, and nutrition.

No HFCS, Non-GMO – No Matter the Label, it’s still Marketing


If a label reads, “No High Fructose Corn Syrup” what does that lead you to believe? Possibly that HFCS is bad? That you should pay more for a product that does not contain HFCS?actually no hfcs


Table sugar (typically sucrose which is 50% fructose and 50% glucose) is readily available to the cells in the body to produce energy. High fructose corn syrup is chemically very similar (usually 55% fructose and 42% glucose). So, the claim seems to be a marketing ploy. But, in general too much sugar of any kind (fructose, sucrose, glucose) in the diet is the problem, not necessarily the type of sugar.


When a product is labeled “Non-GMO” what does that lead you to believe?

Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are a hot topic when it comes to food and food labeling products in the United States. You would think GMOs have bombarded the produce section of the grocery store. You would think it is difficult to avoid GMO fruits and vegetables. But the reality is there are only ten approved varieties of GMO plants. Of those crops, only five could be found in the produce section. They are sweet corn, papaya, potatoes, squash, and the Arctic Apple. (The Arctic Apple won’t be widely available on store shelves for a few more years.


Now what about “organic”?

Are they grown differently? Are they healthier? Are they pesticide free?



actually organic

We can use an analogy to illustrate the difference between a conventional and an organic farm. If you had a tree that needed to be removed, then you would need a tool to cut it down. You could use an ax, a hand saw, a chain saw, or a larger tree cutting machine to get the job done. Each of these tools have pros and cons. Different people see different advantages and disadvantages of each tool and have a different opinion of which tool is “best” for the job.

In organic farming, the farmer only gets to use a limited set of tools. In the case of our tree maybe they just use the ax or the handsaw. Conventional farming has the choice of using a lot more tools including different pesticides, fertilizers, biotechnology, etc. This is represented in our analogy by getting to use any or all of the four tools to cut down the tree. Farmers use different “tools” to grow crops and depending on what they use determines whether they are considered organic or conventional.

By now, I am sure you have started thinking about how food labels impact consumer choices. Consumer choices directly impact the decisions farmers make in the production of our food. To learn more about food labeling and how food is grown visit www.iowaagliteracy.org where you will find this and other classroom lessons.


5 Ways Technology Has Changed Farming

spraying corn

Farms have changed a lot in the last 50 years. Farms are bigger, livestock are usually raised inside, yields are higher, less manual labor is needed, and it’s not common to see dairy cows, beef cattle, pigs, and poultry on the same farm. Why is this? The answer is simple. Technology.

Think about how much technology has improved medicine & healthcare, communications, and transportation in the last 50 years. The field of agriculture has changed just as much.

Let’s take a look at the few of the ways technology has changed farming.

1. Livestock genetics & breeding. Improving livestock breeds is not a new practice. Humans began domesticating animals more than 10,000 years ago. Early farmers selected livestock for their adaption to specific climates and bred them to improve productivity, temperament, and meat, leather, and wool quality. While the practice is not new, the technology used to improve livestock genetics and breed animals has changed dramatically in recent years.

Animal geneticists work to identify elements within genes that can enhance animal growth, health, and ability to utilize nutrients. These genetic advances can increase production while reducing environmental impacts.

It is common for beef cattle and pig farmers to purchase straws of semen from male animals with superior genetics and use artificial insemination to breed females. Embryo transfer is also gaining popularity in the dairy and beef cattle industries.


2. Crop genetics & pest management. Like livestock breeding, the idea of improving plant genetics is not new. Farmers and scientists have used plant selection and breeding techniques to improve crop yield for years. Plant breeders have worked to improve germplasm to develop seeds with the best mix of characteristics to deliver the best yield for specific soil and weather conditions.

Today, plant breeders use a mix of both traditional and modern methods to improve plants. Modern breeding methods include marker assisted breeding, which helps speed up the time it takes to to get the desired improvement, and genetic engineering (GE). GE technology can improve a plant’s insect resistance, drought tolerance, herbicide tolerance, and disease resistance. This technology gives farmers an additional tool to help increase crop yields.


3. Labor and mechanization. Improved farm equipment has probably had the most significant impact on how farmers raise crops and care for livestock. Tractors, planters, and combines are much larger and efficient. Livestock barns have automated feeders. Robotic milking machines milk cows. These technologies and others have enabled farmers to produce more with less labor.

4. Livestock facilities. Aside from beef cattle, livestock are usually raised inside climate-controlled barns. Farmers do this to protect them from predators, extreme weather conditions, and diseases spread by animals and people. Raising livestock inside also enables farmers to utilize technology. Many livestock barns have Wi-Fi and automated feed and climate control systems. Farmers can monitor a cow in labor or adjust the temperature in a barn from their smart phones. If the power goes out, back-up generators start and the farmer is alerted with a text. This technology enables farmers to be more efficient and better care for their animals.


5.Specialization. When my grandparents were my age, farms looked like those in children’s books. They raised a little of everything on their farm. They made a good living and fed their family off 160 acres of corn and hay, a few cows, laying hens, some pigs and my grandmother’s large garden. Over the years, their farm changed. As they invested in tractors and better livestock facilities, they concentrated their efforts to make the most of those investments. They sold much of the livestock and focused on raising pigs, corn and soybeans.

Farms today are even more specialized. If farmers raise livestock, they usually raise one type and even focus on one growth-stage. Most pig farms specialize in farrowing or finishing. Beef cattle farmers generally have cow-calf herds and focus on breeding, calving and weaning, or finishing operations where they raise weaned caves to market weight. Specializing enables farmers to acquire the facilities, technology, knowledge and skills needed to produce the chosen crop or animal, and produce it well.

Farming has changed a lot. What do you think it will look like in the future? How will advances in technology continue to allow farmers to be more economically, socially, and environmentally sustainable?


Why do they do that? – Walking Beans

 When I was young I got many compliments on my nice golden tan. Many people thought I spent my summer as a lifeguard, playing softball, or laying out in the backyard sipping lemonade and listening to music like many girls my age. My tan was earned in a much less “cool” way – walking beans.

Early in the morning, my mom or dad would drive my brothers and me out to a weedy soybean field. With a hoe in hand, we’d walk the half-mile long rows removing any plants in the field that were not soybeans. Buttonweed, milkweed, sunflower, morning glory, fox tail, and cockle bur plants are common weeds in Iowa soybean fields.  These weeds compete with soybean plants for valuable moisture and nutrients.  If they are not removed, soybean yield can decrease, the plants go to seed resulting in a weedier field next year, and the field will look unkempt. A farmer’s tolerance for weeds varies just as much as a person’s acceptance of a messy desk. Some are okay with a few weeds, while others prefer a pristine field.

Many farmers used a bean hook or corn knife to walk beans, but not us. Dad’s preferred tool was a hoe. I’m not sure if that’s because he didn’t trust us with sharp objects, or because a hoe did a better job. 

We would go back and forth down the rows until it was time for dinner (that’s lunch on the farm) or the field was weed free.

Early-to-mid July was prime bean walking season. Before planting and early in the growing-season, farmers used a tractor and cultivator or rotary hoe to remove the weeds. These machines worked great, but they could only be used when the soybeans were small and there was ample space between the rows.

Weeds usually weren’t a problem late in the growing season either. In August and September the soybean plants were large enough to shade the space between the rows, making it difficult for emerging weeds to thrive.

During the era when walking beans was common, farmers also used chemicals, called herbicides, to control weeds. Before planting, pre-emergent herbicides were applied and incorporated into the top few inches of soil. Like their name suggests, these chemicals must be used before weeds emerge since they prevent weed seeds from germinating. Pre-emergent herbicides are only effective on select weeds types, so a combination of pre-emergents are often used to kill multiple weed species. Because most pre-emergent herbicides are effective when tilled into the soil, their use declined as the popularity of no-till farming increased.

Walking beans is rarely needed today thanks to the development of Roundup® Ready soybeans in the late 1990’s. Roundup® (glyphosate), is a non-selective post-emergence herbicide.  In layman’s terms, it kills all plant types when sprayed on plants’ leaves. It works by interfering with plants’ ability to produce essential amino acids. Glyphosate was patented in the 1970’s and widely used by farmers and home-owners.

Glyphosate resistant crops are genetically engineered to be resistant to glyphosate. Using a gene gun scientists insert germplasm from a bacterium into seeds so that they can still produce the amino acids. Then when glyphosate is sprayed it kills the weeds but leaves the desired crop. This technology greatly reduced the need to mechanically remove weeds, both with tractors and tillage equipment and by hand with a crew of young bean-walkers. This Roundup® Ready trait has been introduced to corn, soybeans, canola, cotton, sorghum, and even alfalfa.

Using Roundup® and other herbicides is not the only tool farmers use to control weeds. Tillage methods and crop rotation are important too.  And sometimes, even in Iowa, farmers still walk beans.

Walking beans didn’t take much skill, but I did learn some valuable skills in those hot soybean fields.

  1. Get the job you dread the most done early in the day.
  2. Be thorough. It takes less time to do a job well, than it does redoing a sloppy job later.
  3. The gratification of a job well done is worth the pain of a few blisters you get along the way.
  4. When you remove the bad things, the good things will thrive.
  5. Good company & a little humor always help.

      – Cindy