Norman, Who?

Norman Borlaug (Source: World Food Prize Foundation)

If I asked you to name a famous Iowan, who would come to mind? TV and movie stars like Johnny Carson, Ashton Kutcher, John Wayne, or Cloris Leachman? Maybe sports greats Dan Gable, Shawn Johnson, or Kurt Warner? Former President Herbert Hoover or astronaut Peggy Whitson?

While these people are certainly famous, there is one very deserving name missing from this list. A person who most Americans have likely never heard of; Norman Borlaug, a scientist whose work is credited with saving over a billion lives. That’s right, the person who saved more lives than any other person in history is unknown by most.

I encourage you to take some time to dive into the life and work of Norman Borlaug by reading Our Daily Bread by Noel Vietmeyer or watching Freedom from Famine: The Norman Borlaug Story. But for now, here’s five things you should know about the life and accomplishments of Norman Borlaug.

  1. Norman Borlaug was an agricultural scientist, specifically a plant breeder. His work focused on improving crop genetics, mainly wheat and rice. In 1944, Borlaug moved to Mexico to fight stem rust, a fungus that infects wheat. At the invitation of the Rockefeller Foundation and Vice President Henry A Wallace, he worked on research stations in Mexico to improve agricultural practices. He and his colleagues spent the next decade crossing thousands of strains of wheat from across the globe, ultimately developing a high-yielding, disease-resistant variety. Borlaug’s breeding techniques were soon expanded to other crops and laid the groundwork for advances in agriculture that helped to alleviate world hunger
  2. Borlaug is recognized as the father of the Green Revolution, a period of advancement of agricultural practices and technology between 1950 and the late 1960s that increased food production worldwide. The work of Borlaug and others to increase the yield of grain crops decreased famine and malnutrition, especially in Mexico, India, Pakistan, the Philippines, and other developing countries. By increasing the amount of grain harvested per acre, Borlaug’s work also preserved natural habitats that would have been cultivated to meet the needs of the growing population.   
  3. Borlaug was raised on a farm near Cresco, Iowa, where his family instilled in him a strong work ethic and the value of education. Norman’s grandfather Nels saw great potential in Norm’s curious mind and encouraged him to pursue more education than was typical for a farm boy at the time. “Think for yourself, Norm Boy” and “Fill your head now to fill your belly later” are two things his grandfather would tell him often.
  4. Dr. Borlaug was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 1970, the Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1977, and the Congressional Gold Medal in 2007 for his lifetime of work to feed a hungry world. He is one of only seven people in the world to receive all three honors. Nelson Mandela, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mother Teresa are some of the other honored seven. 
  5. Borlaug founded the World Food Prize, an annual award that recognizes the achievements of individuals who have advanced human development by improving the quality, quantity, or availability of food in the world.  

I’ll admit, I was well into adulthood by the time I learned about Norman Borlaug. And it wasn’t until recent years that I really began to understand his work and why it had such a huge impact globally. I now feel compelled to share his accomplishments with others, especially students. And I hope you do, too.



Pigs. The Inventors of Bacon

Pop quiz! What is the gestation period of a pig?

That’s right! 114 days. It is easy to remember if you think 3-3-3, that is 3 months, three weeks, and three days.

Question number 2. What is the average number of piglets a sow can have?

Yes! 7.5 is right. Pigs regularly have up to 14 piglets per litter, but the average across all breeds is around 7.5.

We don’t often think about pigs. But every Saturday morning when we pull out that packet of bacon for brunch we can say thanks to pigs for providing us such a tasty treat. We raise pigs in Iowa because it is close to the feed they eat. The main staples of a pig’s diet are corn and soybeans and those are the two top commodity crops grown in Iowa. It isn’t coincidence then that Iowa is the number one pork producing state. But Iowa as a powerhouse in swine production didn’t happen overnight. Pigs as a species of livestock have a history that stretches back over 40 million years!

Pigs were first domesticated around 7,000 years ago in western Asia. They scavenged human garbage for food and this close proximity and regular interaction led to their domestication. Pigs traveled with humans as humans began moving around the globe. By 1500 BCE they were widely used for meat in Europe. They even sailed across the Atlantic with Christopher Columbus when he journeyed to the New World. Pigs are omnivores, which means they will eat most anything (meat based or plant based). The common image is ‘slopping’ the pigs or feeding them table scraps and waste products from human food. While that might have been a cheap way to feed pigs in days of old, that is largely an antiquated idea. Pigs today have carefully controlled diets that allow them to grow quickly and stay healthy. Farmers plan their diets with the help of veterinarians and nutritionists. The pig’s diet will even change as they get older to meet their nutritional requirements.

Pigs were first introduced to America in the 1500s. As corn became the most common feed, more and more pigs were raised in the Midwest. Corn was relatively easy to grow and provides quick energy to the pigs. It also provides most of the essential nutrients needed for the pigs to grow. By the 1850s nearly 70,000 pigs per day were shipped through Ohio to the East Coast. Pigs were produced in the ‘corn belt’ states and then shipped to the population centers along the coasts. The invention of the refrigerated railroad car in 1887 made this even easier as pork (instead of live pigs) could be shipped and the meat refrigerated to keep it fresh over long distances.

By the 1990s farmers had made significant improvements in swine production. Through selective breeding techniques, pigs now have larger litters, less disease, and more muscle growth. Larger litters allow farmers to raise more pigs and meet consumer demand. U.S. pork is exported to more than 100 different countries around the world. The swine industry also changed to meet consumer demand. In the 1950s it was not uncommon to see fat pigs. Consumers at the time liked to see pork chops with a thick rind of fat around them. Today’s health-conscious consumer wants less fat in their diet. Pigs now are raised to be lean and muscular, and not fat.

Today’s modern pigs have come a long way from their ancestor – the wild boar. There are numerous specialized breeds that offer better features depending on what the farmer wants (lean meat, good mothering, long body length, etc.). Breeds like Chester White, Duroc, and Berkshire are just a couple of examples. Why different breeds and different colors? It is based on selective breeding. Imagine a bowl of M&Ms where there were 20 brown M&Ms and one yellow M&M. You are asked to pick just one. Which one do you choose? Most people would pick the different colored one – the yellow one. That is how selective breeding works. When a pig exhibits a different trait (like color) the farmer takes notice of the difference. If it is a positive trait, the farmer will then often use that animal as a breeding animal. That trait that the farmer wants then gets passed on to the progeny.

As we look at the future of the pork industry we can see it growing and being an important part of our food system. There is a lot of science and research that is working to benefit the industry. Scientists are studying things like the gut biome to help pigs more efficiently digest their food. Research is being conducted on swine diseases to help keep pigs healthy and prevent disease. Research is being done on how pork can be a healthy and protein rich part of the human diet. It is exciting to think about the future of pork production.

But for now, I get to enjoy my bacon, lettuce, and tomato sandwich. Thank you, farmers!


Ethics in Agriculture

cow eating grass.JPGRight and wrong. Good and bad. Choices.

Food is essential for our survival as human beings. The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations says that society needs to provide its people with the means to obtain food. In our modern society, farmers are responsible for ensuring that enough food is produced to feed all humans. This leads to the enhanced well-being of citizens and that by eliminating hunger and malnutrition we improve human health. But the production of food to feed people cannot be the only consideration. Natural resources and the natural world should also be valued and a balance should be struck. These somewhat opposing forces (agriculture for the betterment of humans and protection of the natural world) necessitate the making of choices.

Farmers make choices everyday about how to produce that food. Government workers make choices everyday about regulating food production. Researchers make choices about the science they conduct to advance agriculture. Industrial workers, lawmakers, technology developers, consumers, and protesters all make choices.

2.jpgChoice Impact Outcomes

It is these choices that determine the ethics of agriculture. Are the choices good or bad? Are they right or wrong? Not every choice has a purely positive outcome. Some choices have negative consequences. But to determine if choice is good or bad sometimes we need to decide if the positives of the choice outweigh the potential negative impacts of the choice. These ethics can be documented through legal codes, religion, literature, and other hallmarks of our recorded history. Ethics are values generally agreed upon by the collective whole. But because we are humans and each view the world a little differently that agreement or consensus isn’t solidified. Ethics can change as society changes.

Fewer People Produce Their Own Food

As early as 16th Century Europe, farming started to transition from ‘a way of life’ to a profitable business. Since then farmers have continued to specialize as a profession. For most of human history, all people of the society had to be involved in raising and producing food. But today, fewer than 2% of the U.S. population is involved in production agriculture. Farmers raise and produce food to feed the other 98% and our global market of trade and exchange has allowed farmers to specialize and raise only one or two crops or livestock species. The trade-off is that this system has led to mono-cultured crops and intensive livestock production systems.

Agriculture and farming was also held in high regard as an underpin of democracy with hard-working, solid citizens. Farming can be viewed as a noble human endeavor – to feed the people of Earth. At the end of World War 2, there was a tremendous need to increase food production. Agriculture and the role of farmers has been to supply abundant, safe, and nutritious food that is affordable to the consumer. New technologies and governmental policies allowed this to happen and today farmers produce enough calories to feed every person on earth. But it isn’t necessarily just producing the right kind of food, it is the logistical problems of food distribution that keep nutritious food supplies from areas that need them. At the current rate of human population growth it is assumed there will be at least 9 billion (2 million more) humans to feed by the year 2050. Farmers still largely view their role as one to produce more food.

field corn 2.JPGSustainability Provides Ethical Guidance

In modern agriculture we can use the idea of sustainability to help determine if a choice is ethical. Sustainability has three parts – economic sustainability, social sustainability, and environmental sustainability.

  1. Economic sustainability – If the farm will be profitable and the farmer will stay in business, it will lead to economic sustainability.
  2. Social sustainability – If the choice is good for individual humans and the community, it will lead to social sustainability.
  3. Environmental sustainability – If the production method doesn’t degrade the natural environment (soil, water, air, and plant and animal communities), then it will lead to environmental sustainability.

Finding a Balance

Ethical conversations teeter on this balance. And different groups of people might prioritize one leg of sustainability over the other. For example, people passionate about nature, wildlife, and wild habitats might say those require top consideration. But if a farmer can’t use the natural resources like soil and water to produce their crops and raise their livestock, then they will not be economically or socially sustainable. As another example, vegans and vegetarians might protest the killing of livestock for human food consumption. But throughout history, humans have been omnivores and eat meat and animal products as a part of their diet along with plants. The meat provides essential amino acids, fats, proteins, vitamins, and minerals that all contribute toward a healthy diet. Without meat as a part of the human diet, humans may not be as healthy and therefore the system wouldn’t be as socially sustainable.

In ethical conversations there are many considerations to weigh and balance. The conversations can include farm structure, animal welfare, food safety, environmental impacts, international trade, food security, biotechnology, research, and more. Where we land on these conversations and choices help determine governmental policies, food safety regulations, research and technology regulation, and other guiding rules and laws.

For example, biotechnology has incredible potential to advance agricultural production. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? Prudent regulation can help mitigate the risks but still allow for the advances.

Raising crops in monoculture has an incredibly high level of efficiency and productivity, but can lead to soil degredation and increased disease pressure. Can the positive results outweigh the risks associated with it? New practices like no-till farming and cover crops can reduce the negative effects of soil erosion and improve soil micro-organisms, but can cost more money to implement.

Raising animals indoors can significantly improve the efficiency of the production system. Can the positive results outweigh the negative aspects of confined quarters? Health monitoring, access to fresh food and water, and manure management keep livestock healthy with a high level of care and welfare.

These are just a few examples of the pros and cons in agriculture and why the choices made are thought to be ethical.

Farmers and others in agricultural industry make choices every day. No situation is perfect and farmers can continue to improve their practices. And ethics of farming may evolve and shift and change, but I would submit that they make these choices with the best of intentions and the hope that they are making the right, good, and ethical choice.


Superhero Crops and Their Origins

Every superhero has their origin story. It’s the story of how it all started – how they came to be a superhero. Spider-Man was bitten by a radioactive spider. Captain Marvel absorbed the energy of the Tesseract. The Flash inhaled hard water vapors and then got his powers when a lightening bolt hit his lab. Wonder Woman is an Amazon and was granted her powers by the Greek gods.

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In agriculture, we can look at crops that we grow as superheros of sorts. Each one has its own origin story too. They aren’t as fanciful or dramatic as many of our graphic novel and comic book heroes. But they are just as amazing! Consider the following.

Superhero: Corn. Secret Identity: Zea Mays or Maize. Nearly 9,000 years ago a grass in Mesoamerica – what is now Mexico – was recognized as having food potential and it was domesticated. This annual grass, teosinte, had a small seed head with 8-20 seeds. The seeds were harvested and became a staple in the diet of the indigenous people. Early farmers collected the seed heads that had the most seeds and planted those again the following year. Do this over and over again for 9,000 years and the seed head evolves from 8-20 seeds to 600-800 seeds! And along the way natural mutations (no radioactive spider or bolt of lightening required) changed those seeds. Natural mutations created blue corn, white corn, sweet corn, and popcorn. For popcorn, the natural mutation was a thick, hard exterior coating on each of d7.jpgthe seeds. The hard exterior coating keeps moisture locked in. Then when it is exposed to heat and the moisture turns to steam, the popcorn POPS open! Sweet corn, too, is a natural mutation of the original. 

Teosinte can still be found throughout modern Mexico. It looks so different from modern corn that scientists had no clue they were related. But when a DNA analysis was conducted, low and behold, they were related. Teosinte found today is the crop wild relative of modern corn.

Superhero: Wild mustard. Secret Identity: Brassica oleracea. This one little plant – wild mustard – has given rise to a number of different agricultural crops that take up a huge section in modern grocery stores. Take a look at broccoli, cauliflower, cabbage, kale, kohlrabi, and Brussels sprouts and you are basically looking at the same plant! Farmers began noticing that some wild mustard plants had very pronounced flowers or florets. They began cultivating those variety and after hundreds of successive generations we now have broccoli and cauliflower. Farmers noticed that some of those same mustard plants had large leaves. They began selecting for those traits and pretty soon – viola! Cabbage! And kale! Some of those same mustard plants had lateral leaf buds. A few generations later – and Brussels sprouts! Some of those same mustard plants had lateral meristems – and boom! Kohlrabi. 


None of this happened overnight. And again, no Tesseract needed. But through careful selection of traits, farmers were able to create multiple different varieties of crops all from the same parent species. Wild mustard species still abound across Europe, Asia, and North America. It is amazing to think that these wild relatives could, through careful cultivation, someday line grocery store shelves.

Superhero: Wheat. Secret Identity: Triticum. About 500,000 years ago, two species of wild grasses crossed – long before humans entered the picture. Humans in the Fertile Crescent (what is now modern Iraq, Israel, Palestine, Syria, Lebanon, Egypt, Jordan, Turkey, and Iran) domesticated this grass. It is what we now call emmer wheat. Either on purpose or accidentally and around the time that humans began cultivating the wheat, a third wild grass joined into the mix. Because of this, wheat, as we know it today, has three pairs of every chromosome (most species only have two pairs). This gives wheat approximately 16,000 base pairs in its genome. Talk about a powerful genome! For comparison, the human genome only has around 3,000 base pairs. Wheat has long been a staple crop around the globe. It provides many of the calories needed for societies to thrive. Its complicated genetic history makes it harder for scientists to figure out but gives it a lot of diversity and potential, too. Emmer wheat is still grown today. And as a grass, modern wheat has a lot of relatives that can be found in the wild. 

Superhero: Banana. Secret Identity: Cavendish. There are more than a thousand varieties of bananas throughout the world. But the type of banana that is most often consumed is the Cavendish. This variety doesn’t produce any seeds. The tiny black specs that you might find in some Cavendish are the remnants of seeds that never matured. Because of the way the Cavendish flowers it really can’t get pollinated to produce seeds. The flower grows upside down and the female parts of the flower all mature and start to form fruit before the male part of the flower even opens. This is great for consumers because they don’t have to contend with seeds. They can just peel the banana and eat the whole thing. But for farmers, without seeds, no new plants. But new plants are grown through asexual propagation. That’s right, most bananas are clones of each other! Talk about a superpower! Duplicating yourself into countless copies!

Wild banana relatives are able to sexually propagate and so bananas in the wild will have seeds inside of them with very little fruit. One benefit of identifying, knowing, and studying crop wild relatives (like wild bananas) is to tap into the power of diverse genes. The banana variety that we consumed before the Cavendish was the Gros Michel. A virulent Panamanian disease decimated the banana industry in the 1940s. Farmers had to stop growing the Gros Michel and switch to the Cavendish. Another disease is now threatening the Cavendish. By studying the wild relatives, scientists might find a gene that is resistant to the fungal disease and introduce it to save the Cavendish.

Superhero: Sunflower. Secret Identity: Helianthus. This versatile crop is widely known in Kansas (home of another super hero – Superman). But sunflowers are grown in a lot of states – either for oil or for confectionery (direct seed consumption). The seeds can be crushed to extract their oil. Or the seeds can be whole, ground, roasted, or processed in many other ways to be eaten.

“Plants are regularly challenged by a variety of environmental stresses such as drought, flooding, salt, and low-nutrient levels that negatively affect plant growth and reduce productivity. Though wild plants have evolved mechanisms to meet these challenges, many crops are less resilient. To reduce stress-induced yield loss and improve food security, attention has increasingly turned to the tapping of genetic diversity in crop wild relatives. Sunflower is an ideal crop for such an approach because the productivity of this oilseed crop is clearly limited by such stresses, while wild relative species are adapted to a variety of extreme environments,” from here.

The resulting stress-resistant cultivars could help stabilize production in developing countries in the face of environmental stresses.

Superhero: Carrot. Secret Identity: Daucus carota. Domestic carrots are so diverse that they could be seen to have many different superpowers as compared to their wild cousins. Carrots can come in a variety of colors – white, yellow, purple, and yes, orange. Compare these multi-colored carrots side-by-side in a taste test and you will likely determine that the orange ones are the sweetest. And that might be why you will usually only see orange carrots in the grocery store. Carrots have a number of relatives including the ornamental Queen Anne’s lace flower. Carrots are another great example of selective breeding practices that farmers used over countless generations. The original carrot was a scrawny, spindly, root that probably didn’t have much value. But like a superhero paired with a mentor, the carrot and the farmer grew together. The carrot developed a long tap root to store sugars. The orange color meant it was packed with vitamin A and a healthy part of the human diet. These modern carrots are definitely a superhero as compared to their wild relatives.

Every modern day crop has a back story. And most still have crop wild relatives. What crop wild relatives are you familiar with?


Five Ways to Celebrate Agriculture During Iowa History Month


New this year, March will be recognized as Iowa History Month. This works great with new Iowa Core Social Studies standards, as each grade has Iowa history standards to meet. Since agriculture plays a huge role in Iowa history, here are a few ways to incorporate agriculture in your Iowa History Month celebrations.

Read a book


The Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation has a host of historical, biographical, and Iowa-focused books, all great for learning more about Iowa’s agricultural history. Any resource available in IALF’s Lending Library is free to request and use for a standard two week period, after which time we ask you to return the item. These books all help tell the story of agriculture and agriculture in Iowa.

If you’re looking for a read-aloud book for elementary-aged kids, consider In the Garden with Dr. Carver by Susan Grigsby, The Kid Who Changed the World by Andy Andrews, or Sweet Corn and Sushi by Lori Erickson. These books talk about famous Iowans like George Washington Carver, Henry A. Wallace, and Norman Borlaug, as well as the Iowa Hog Lift, which brought livestock to disaster victims in Japan in 1960.

For books for older students and adults, consider titles like The Man Who Fed the World by Leon Hesser, Industrializing the Corn Belt by J.L. Anderson, How Iowa Conquered the World by Michael Rank, Iowa History Reader by Marvin Bergman, or Iowans Who Made a Difference by Don Muhm and Virginia Wadsley.


Research a famous Iowan


Iowa is home to so many famous and influential people. Many of these people have roots in agriculture and environmental science!

Our most famous Iowa agriculturalists are George Washington Carver, Henry A. Wallace, and Norman Borlaug, but have you heard of Jessie Field Shambaugh, Ada Hayden, Jesse Hiatt, Warren and B.O. Gammon, Aldo Leopold, John Froelich, or Mary Garst? These amazing Iowans have all left a legacy of learning and scientific advancement in agriculture.

For a more extensive list of famous Iowans (including John Wayne, Elijah Wood, Jason Momoa, and Ashton Kutcher) click here.

Visit a historic site


Because of Iowa’s rich history in agriculture, there are many places you can visit to help you learn more about our state’s advancements. Many communities have local museums with agricultural exhibits. There are also statewide treasures you can take a trip to go visit!

In the Metro area, you can visit Living History Farms, Wallace Centers of Iowa, The World Food Prize, or the State Historical Museum. In the Northeast quarter of the state, you can visit any Silos and Smokestacks partner site, including the Froelich General Store and Tractor Museum, Herbert Hoover Presidential Museum, or the Norman Borlaug Boyhood Home and Birthplace Farms!

If you can’t physically visit a historical location or a farm, consider holding a FarmChat® program in your classroom with a modern farm to talk with the farmer about how their operation has changed over time.

Surf the Web


If you want to do some reading and learning on your own, there are lots of good resources online. Some include Iowa Pathways with IPTV, the State Historical Museum online catalog, State Historical Society of Iowa’s Primary Source Sets, National Agriculture in the Classroom’s Growing a Nation, Silos and Smokestacks National Heritage Area’s CampSilos, or Living History Farms’ Learning Fields.

You can also research specific points in Iowa’s agricultural history, like the founding of the Polled Hereford breed of cattle, The Farm Crisis, the floods of 1993 and 2011, the drought of 1977, the invention of the gas-powered tractor, the Homestead Act, or the establishment of Iowa’s land grant university or Extension system. What other major events impacted Iowa and Iowa’s agriculture?



IALF has a wealth of resources, ideas, and connections. Let us help you pick a lesson plan, book, educator guide, or even an applicable blog post to supplement your Iowa history lessons.

Using just a few resources, you can celebrate Iowa History Month in true fashion! Be creative and share your Iowa History Month celebrations using the hashtag #IowaHistory.


Scarecrows and Agriculture? Say What?

porch scarecrowFall is in the air. The farmers are out combining their crops in the fields, and fall decorations are set out. Mums, pumpkins, and scarecrows add a festive touch to porch stoops. Scarecrows are now often used as fun fall decorations, but did you know they once served an agricultural purpose?


The origin of the scarecrow dates back to the time of the Egyptians. Farmers installed wooden frames in their fields and covered them with nets. As birds would enter the field, the farmer would scare them into the net and capture them.

Greek farmers also used scarecrows. In 2,500 B.C., Greek farmers carved wooden scarecrows to look like Priapus, the son of Greek goddess Aphrodite. He was believed to be ugly enough to scare birds away from the vineyards and ensure a good harvest. One hand held a club to scare the birds away, and the other hand held a sickle in hopes of a good harvest.

DCF 1.0Japan had their own version of scarecrows called a kakashis. This scarecrow closely resembled a person. It was dressed in a raincoat and a round straw hat. Farmers added bows and arrows to make the kakashis appear to be more threatening.

Scarecrows were also used in the Middle Ages in Europe. Their original purpose was to england scarecrowfrighten away birds from eating crops in the field. For thousands of years, farmers have tried to keep pests like crows from eating the seeds and plants in their fields. Before scarecrows were around, during the Middle Ages, in England, young boys would walk through the wheat fields making loud noises with wooden clappers to scare the birds away. This was the child’s main job on the farm. They were called bird scarers. When the fields got larger, they started to build wooden stands throughout the field for children to sit in during the day. While they sat in the stand, they would bang pots, make noise, and throw rocks at any animals or birds that attempted to eat their crops.

During the Great Plague, many children died and few were left to stay in the field as bird scarers. Farmers had to be creative and find something else that would deter the pests from the fields. Thus, the scarecrow was born in that region. England scarecrow bodies were made from stuffed sacks of straw and their faces made of gourds. Their bodies were leaned against a pole to scare away birds.

homemade scarecrowMake your own scarecrow

You can make your own scarecrow for your garden at home! It is a simple process. Garden scarecrows must stand tall in the wind, rain, or heat so they need to be made from sturdy materials. Start with a strong frame. A wooden poll, PVC pipe or metal fence post works well. Be creative and use recyclables to create your scarecrow! Old milk jugs work well to create a head for your scarecrow. You can even paint a face on it.

The next step is to to create a body for your scarecrow. Use old clothes to dress the scarecrow. Fill a shirt and old pants with straw, hay, or grass clippings. Tie the ends of the clothing items shut so the filling stays inside. Colorful duct tape can be used to secure the scarecrow to the frame. Attach an old straw hat or wig to make the scarecrow even more life-like.

Attach noise makers to frighten pesky birds away from your crops. Metal objects and reflective products work well to keep birds away.

Just in time for fall celebrations, your new scarecrow can serve two purposes! First it can add to your fall décor, and secondly it can help keep birds from disrupting your crops.

Happy fall!


Farming – A Family Tradition



All farmers are superheroes, but meet my superhero, my grandmother Corinne. Grandma Corinne was the oldest of five girls born on the family farm in the small town of Letts, Iowa in 1925. Like many other families, farming was a tradition. It was their way of life, and what they were born to do. 


MyPhoto1534337933868Grandma Corinne was born at the home place that was composed of 80 acres, a house, horse barn, chicken shed, garage, pump house and outhouse. Later a hog house was built where sows had their baby pigs. Her father raised a variety of animals and crops to help support their family.

Everyone had a role in the farming operation, even at a young age. When it was chore time, Grandma Corinne oversaw the chickens. They would raise around 200 laying hens. She would make sure they had feed and water, and also gather the eggs. The family would sell eggs to a grocery store in Muscatine, Iowa to earn extra money. It was important the eggs were clean. Grandma would tell a story of how she would use sand paper to gently clean off any dirt from the egg before taking them to market. After the eggs were clean, they would pack them in large wooden cases that held 30 dozen eggs. The eggs were stored in the basement of the house until it was time to take them to town to sell at the end of the week. Two large cases (60 dozen eggs) were taken to the store each week. MyPhoto1534337753680

Another task Grandma Corinne had was caring for the large garden. Each spring they would plant a huge garden. Her father Philip would prepare the garden bed with two horses and a plow. Then Grandma Corinne and her mother would plant the seeds. Rows of potatoes, lettuce, radishes, onions, beets, carrots, green beans, tomatoes, and sweet corn would grow on the south side of the house. There was also an orchard with peach, apples, and cherry trees. As the produce grew, Grandma Corinne would be out there with her garden hoe to make sure it was free of weeds. It was a family affair to care for the garden. When it was time to harvest the crop, the family would all go out to the garden with buckets and wagons to gather the produce. They ate a lot of the produce while it was in season, but her mother would can some as well, so they could enjoy it all year long. They stored the potatoes and apples in the basement. By storing them in a dry room with a temperature of 35-40°F , it allowed them to last six to eight months. They had enough produce to last until the next  year’s crop.

MyPhoto1534337915470As time went on and technology developed, farming became a lot easier and more efficient. In 1942 when Grandma Corinne was 17 years old, her father purchased the family’s first tractor, a Farmall H. They used this machine to cultivate, disk, plow, and harrow the corn field. This tractor allowed them to cultivate two rows of corn at a time compared to one row at a time with a team of two horses. Grandma Corinne had her share of driving the tractor! She and her sister took turns cultivating the corn while their dad was making hay. They were farming in a time before herbicides and pesticides. By cultivating the corn they were breaking up the soil between the rows of corn to overturn any weeds that may have started growing. They needed to remove the weeds from the field because the weeds would compete with the crop and result in smaller yields.  This was done multiple times in May and June. This video shows what it was like to cultivate the corn in the 1940s.

At that time, they didn’t have big tractor cabs with air conditioning like they do now. Farmers had to be very careful working outside. They would wear long sleeved shirts and pants to protect their skin from burning. Grandma Corinne would wear a large brimmed straw hat she secured to her head with a shoe string. They attached an umbrella by the tractor seat to provide some extra shade while they were working the field as well.  

MyPhoto1534338055940Grandma Corinne started farming in a time with minimal technology. It was a very laborious career, but it was their way of life. Later Corinne went on to marry a farmer. The family tradition of farming continued. They returned to the home place and raised their four kids. Now my uncle Roger farms the same farm my grandmother, great-grandfather, and great-great-grandfather farmed. This farm has been in our family for 149 years. Next year it will be a Heritage Farm. A Heritage Farm is awarded to a family that has owned at least 40 acres of land for 150 years or more. Do you know a farmer who owns a Century or Heritage Farm? What’s their agricultural story?

MyPhoto1534517732215Not all superheroes wear capes, some might wear jeans, long-sleeved shirts, and hats. These superheroes call themselves farmers. My superhero is my Grandma Corinne, whose yours? Tag your favorite farmer to let them know they are your superhero!



6 Reasons to Apply for an Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher Supplement Grant

We know that teachers are always looking for new ways to engage students, but funding for classroom resources is limited.  We have a solution!

This week we kicked off another year of the Agriculture in the Classroom Teacher Supplement Program. Since 2003, teachers have utilized these grants to fund innovative lessons, classroom resources, outreach programs, field trips and more!

With funding from the Iowa Farm Bureau Federation, the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation offers $200 grants to support the integration of agriculture into preschool-12th grade in-school and afterschool programs. The subject-area focus of the grant changes each year to allow a variety of projects to receive funding and encourage teachers to consider incorporate agriculture across the curriculum. This year’s focus areas are agriculture in literacy/language arts OR agriculture in social studies.

Not convinced yet, here’s a few reasons to apply:

1.  Agriculture is a topic students can easily connect with because it is all around us! Nearly everything we eat, wear, use — even the fuel that powers cars and buses — comes from plants and animals grown on farms.

2.   Agriculture provides real-world connections to Iowa Core Standards.  Teaching about agriculture in Iowa is an ideal way for students to learn what their state is all about and provide real-life connections to all subjects.

  • Tip:  On the application, be sure to specifically describe what your students will learn about agriculture through your project– not just how a topic, like Iowa history or technology, relates to agriculture.

3.  Social Studies, Social Studies, Social Studies!  Iowa recently adopted new social studies standards, and many have strong connections to agriculture!  Here’s just few examples:

-1st Grade: Describe the diverse cultural makeup of Iowa’s past and present in the local community, including indigenous and agricultural communities. (SS.1.23)

-2nd Grade: Identify how people use natural resources to produce goods and services. (SS.2.12)

-4th Grade: Explain how Iowa’s agriculture has changed over time. (SS.4.26)

-6th Grade: Explain how changes in transportation, communication, and technology influence the movement of people, goods, and ideas in various countries. (SS.6.18)

-7th Grade: Analyze the role that Iowa plays in contemporary global issues. (SS.7.27)

  • Tip: Take a look at the National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes for more ideas about what students should know about agriculture as it relates to the study of culture, society, economy and geography. Social Studies content is in orange print.

4.  It’s a great way to build your classroom library. Books are a perfect way for students to learn about agriculture! Incorporate books with an agricultural theme into a language arts or social studies lesson described in the application.  Then add them to your classroom library to be enjoyed by students for years to come.

  • Tip: Take a look at the books in the Iowa Agriculture Literacy Foundation’s Lending Library for ideas. We have over 200 titles, and you can even check them out to review before buying your own.

5.  Funding for field trips is hard to come by. Take students to learn about agriculture first-hand at a farm, museum or historic site. Iowa’s many agriculture museums and historic sites offer tours and self-guided opportunities to learn about Iowa’s agricultural history.

  • Tip:  Be sure to include what you will do in the classroom before and after the field trip to make the most of the learning experience.  If you are learning about agriculture long-ago during the field trip, describe ways your students will compare and contrast that to farming today once they return.

6.  It’s easy!  Many grant applications take hours to complete and require long essays, spreadsheets with details budgets, administrator approval, and more.  Not this one! It only has 10 questions, and most have short answers. Head on over to the application page, create a log-in, and get started.

  • Tip:  Take a look at the application questions now, think about project ideas, and return later to finish. Once you start the application, you can save and return as often as necessary before January 10, 2018.



The Story Within the Hands of Agriculture

A couple of weekends ago, I went home to de-stress a bit after the first week of classes started up for the fall semester. Nothing beats coming home for a weekend to relax, but this weekend was even more exciting because my dad found out about a farm auction that was going on.

drill handI absolutely love auctions; from the atmosphere, to the unknown treasures that are being sold, to the sweet musical sound of the auctioneer rattling off numbers and taking bids. It’s music to my ears. I’d have to say they are one of my favorite events to attend with my parents, not only because of the atmosphere, but also because of the stories that lie within the items being sold. Not just that but I love to think about the stories of the people who used these items before they were placed on the sale rack too. It’s history first hand. At this sale there were items from old cream separators, to feed sacks, to bushel baskets, to tractor seats.

While looking at these treasures, I started looking at the people at the sale who were bidding. Most were farmers both young and old, some were Amish families, and there were many others that love farm auctions, like myself. But where this story begins is when a gentlemen farmer picked up an old tractor seat. It wasn’t the seat that attracted my attention, it was his hands that did.kedric hand

They looked very similar to my dad’s, and I’ve always thought my dad has had very unique hands. You see my dad has very large powerful hands like a bear, with thick muscular fingers. There are a lot of cracks and creases and usually when I see him his hands are very dirty because of the work that he is doing on the farm, whether it be fixing tractors, working with animals, or working out in the field.

After this farmer’s hands caught my attention, I began to look around and observe everyone’s hands including my dad’s and my own. I noticed that many of the farmers that were at this auction all had hands similar to my dad’s. And then I remembered thinking back to a time when my dad and I were practicing handshakes. I remember he told me that my hands were a lot like my mothers. I never thought anything of it. I just always thought I inherited hands like my mom’s instead of my dad’s—it never struck me though that the type of work could define someone’s life through their hands.

corn shellsSo amongst my observations, I leaned over to my mom and mentioned my thoughts to her. She looked around and commented back, “Well they’ve got the farmer’s hands.” Still trying to comprehend, I questioned back and she replied, “The work that they do requires a great deal of manual strength. Their hands are muscular because they have had to adapt to the physical work they are putting in. Their hands are proof of the amount of strength needed to be a farmer.” I let that sink in a bit and then started looking around at all the items that were being auctioned off. All these items were huge advancements in their day. They were created to make farming and living easier for the ones that were using them. Even though they were considered advancements, they still required a great deal of manpower to run efficiently. The same can be said for the agriculture advancements of today. Even though we use a lot more technology and innovative farm equipment like Global Positioning Systems (GPS) and combines and planters, the equipment still requires a great deal of physical labor to be put in. The equipment won’t work unless those hands do. The work can’t be done unless those hands get to work.water handle

Now just because farmers might have larger and stronger hands than some does not mean that anyone else’s work is not successful or as hardworking. The hands of a farmer just reflect the work they do everyday. They tell a story of the trials they’ve faced and the accomplishments they’ve won. I guarantee if you sat down with a farmer and looked at his or her hands, you could see the scares, the cuts, the missing fingernails, and the burns and ask them about it and get a story to go along with it. It could be a story of the lesson they learned while fixing fence, a memory of bringing a calf into this world, or a story of the hands they’ve shook along the way. Whatever it is, these hands have experienced a great deal of trials and lived to tell a tale of it. They are unique to the agriculture industry, and a symbol of the work that is done here. Without these hands, we would have no food, no clothing, and a great deal of more work thrown on to our own shoulders. So the next time you see a farmer, shake their hand and ask for the story that is held within.


Iowa’s Beef Breed

In previous blogs, we have talked some about the differences in breeds of cattle. Over time, cattle were bred for different traits in different parts of the world, which resulted in many of the breeds we know today. For instance, Holsteins are large dairy cattle with superior milk production. Angus cattle are a popular beef breed with superior marbling and meat quality.

But if you think back to old westerns, it’s rarely a Holstein or an Angus that was represented on a cattle drive. More often than not, the herds are a mass of red and white with curly hair on their faces, and those animals are called Herefords.


Screen capture from The Rare Breed, starring Jimmy Stewart

The Hereford breed of cattle was founded in Herefordshire England in the 1700s. Herefords are known for being docile, and were bred for high meat production and quality. Traditionally, they are a horned breed, meaning that all animals (both male and female) of this breed naturally grow horns. Since early cattle breeders actually preferred horns, this trait became more or less fixed in the breed, with polled animals being only a rarity. However, once the trait was fixed, producers noticed it was a problem.

When cattle have horns, it’s very easy for them to hurt things. Horns can be long and sharp, and with a quick toss of the head, an animal can push, cut, or skewer other animals or their owner. This not only becomes a liability for the other members of the herd, which are the farmer’s livelihood, but they also become a danger to the farmer themselves.

Because of this, cattle owners began the practice of dehorning cattle. It’s not a fun, easy, or nice task. Over the years, producers have gotten better at it, using local anesthetics and more humane techniques, but even now it is simply a necessary task that producers grit their teeth to accomplish to the best of their ability.

Let’s rewind back to 1898 to Warren Gammon, an Iowa lawyer and cattle breeder.


Warren Gammon was a Hereford breeder that hailed from Des Moines, but his farm was near St. Mary’s in Warren County. He first saw naturally hornless (polled) cattle at an exhibition at the Trans-Mississippi Fair in Omaha in 1898. From there, he ran with this idea: can we develop a modern beef breed without horns?

In Gammon’s mind, dehorning was an unnecessary practice. He felt that he could better the treatment of cattle by selecting for naturally polled animals. He once wrote an essay titled “Is It Morally Right to Use a Horned Bull?” In this essay, he said:

“When we consider all of her [a cow’s] merits, we are forced to conclude that there is no species of animal on earth that is more entitled to sympathetic and kind treatment or that has greater claims on our admiration than the American cow and her progeny.”

On his quest, Gammon searched the country for other naturally hornless Hereford cattle. According to Birth of a Breed by Orville K. Sweet, Gammon wrote letters to 2,500 members of the American Hereford Association searching out these odd, naturally hornless animals. He purchased four bulls and ten cows from these inquiries. Three of those animals were eliminated from his breeding stock, and the remaining 11 were the first of the Polled Hereford breed registered in 1901.

Just a few years later in 1907, the American Polled Hereford Breeders Association was founded and headquartered in Des Moines. Both Warren and his son, Bert, were instrumental in the growth and development of this breed. By the 1950s, Polled Herefords had proven to be a popular, versatile, hardy, and adaptive breed. In 1995, the American Polled Hereford Association merged with the American Hereford Association, both of which are now housed in Kansas City, Missouri.

From an Iowa standpoint, we can claim not only this breed, but also these two influential Iowans. Warren and Bert Gammon were able to use their knowledge of heredity to create a breed of cattle that is safer to handle while eliminating an imperfect practice.


You can even pay homage to the birthplace of the Polled Hereford breed! There isn’t much left of the original site (now on the National Register of Historic Places), but there is a boulder with a plaque explaining the significance.

What’s more, you can even visit the Gammons’ barn at the Iowa State Fairgrounds! The barn was moved from the origin site to the fairgrounds in 1991, where it now serves as a museum. This lesser-known beauty is tucked in between the Livestock Pavilion and the Cattle Barn. Inside, you can see bronzed hats of American Polled Hereford Association Hall of Famers, books, documents, pictures, and other historical pieces relating to the Polled Hereford breed. (And as a bonus, when you’re there you might meet my dad, Ray!)

I hope you had fun learning about one of my favorite pieces of Iowa history!



Ps. If you’re interested in modern efforts to genetically dehorn cattle, check out this really cool video!