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!

The STEM of Thanksgiving Dinner

When we sit down to dinner this Thursday, many of us will think about the delicious herbs and spices that make the side dishes mouth-wateringly good. We may think about carving the bird at the center of it all – the turkey. However, we may not think about all of the science, technology, engineering, and math that goes into that Thanksgiving dinner. But maybe we should think about it!

Domestic turkey are usually white. White feathers don’t leave marks in the skin which consumers prefer.

The center piece of Thanksgiving is usually the turkey. The poults (baby turkeys) are raised in a barn to provide the optimal environment – temperature, humidity, and biosecurity. The birds grow from roughly 3.2 ounces to as much as 42 pounds. All of this happens in 19-20 weeks (roughly 5 months) and is possible because of proper nutrition and genetics improved through selective breeding practices. As the turkeys mature, they go through a series of eight different feed rations. They start out with a high level of protein to build body structure, bones, and organs. As they get older, the protein levels are decreased and the carbohydrate levels are increased to promote muscle and meat development. Throughout the entire process, the birds are closely tracked with technology and data is collected to help make good decisions. Many different aspects on the farm help in raising the turkeys sustainably. Solar panels help power the barn and make that ideal environment. Even managing the turkey manure can make the farm more sustainable! The manure is a by-product that has nutrient value in growing crops. The soil can be tested and manure can be added to corn and soybean fields to provide the needed nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium.

Cranberries are produced on low growing vines. The fields are flooded to harvest the berries which float.

Beyond turkey, there is also the iconic cranberry! In fact, one-fifth of the cranberries eaten in the U.S. are eaten on Thanksgiving! Conjure an image in your mind’s eye of growing cranberries and you’ll likely imagine a cranberry bog with berries floating on top of the water. But that isn’t how they grow! Flooding cranberry fields only happens at the end of the growing season to harvest the cranberries because they are buoyant and the berries will float to the surface of the water when mechanically knocked off the vine. This technology seems simple but is highly innovative taking advantage of the natural physics of the berries. The flooded fields also help protect the plants throughout the winter protecting the flower buds for the next year’s harvest.

Sweet potatoes can take 90 to 170 days to mature.

Many Thanksgiving tables will also feature mashed potatoes or sweet potatoes…or both! Though both are called potatoes they aren’t related – taxonomically speaking. Potatoes, like the white Russet variety, are in the nightshade family like tomatoes. Sweet potatoes, most often with orange flesh, are in the morning glory family. Potatoes are the fourth most farmed crop on the planet. There is a lot of science that goes into producing potatoes. Potatoes are asexually propagated. Cross pollination would result in a lot of variations of potatoes. The only way to ensure similarity and uniformity in the potato harvest is to cut potatoes from the previous year and plant those as root stock for the next year’s crop. Farmers protect their crop from diseases like blight and insects like the potato beetle. Sweet potatoes, on the other hand, are planted by slips – or growing vines. The tubers will grow from the nodes of the slips. The plants will develop large, long vines to harvest the sun’s energy. There are different cultivars that lend themselves well to growing in Iowa and other varieties might be found in grocery stores.

Pie pumpkins have thick, orange flesh and are different from the variety grown for jack-o-lanterns.

And what Thanksgiving table is complete without a pumpkin pie! There are many different varieties of pumpkin. A good pie pumpkin is one that has thick flesh (not the jack-o-lantern variety). Pumpkin seeds are planted in June for an October harvest. The vines will flower and the flowers have to be pollinated by insects before they will produce a fruit. Once harvested, the pumpkins can be processed and canned to provide the filling to a delicious pumpkin pie.

While there are a lot of other side dishes that might grace the table this Thursday, these ingredients are unique. Turkey, cranberries, potatoes, sweet potatoes, and pumpkins all originated and were domesticated in the Americas. They have gained fame around the world for being American. There aren’t a lot of foods that we regularly eat that were domesticated in the Americas, but these staples are.

What other dishes do you put on your Thanksgiving table? Leave a comment to let us know!


Earth Day and Agriculture

No other industry uses the earth and relies on natural consistency as much as agriculture. Farmers require weather conditions that follow patterns year after year to grow their crops. They count on the soil to hold its nutrients to produce high yields. Farmers need fields to be in good condition to harvest, plant, chisel plow, and spread anhydrous or manure. Crop farmers aren’t the only ones affected by weather––livestock farmers can face extreme challenges when there is too much rain or snow, or in severe droughts or heat waves. The bottom line is this: farmers and ranchers rely heavily on the earth and the natural processes that help crops grow and supply food and water for their animals. The earth provides what farmers need to supply the world with food, clothing, and so much more.

Earth Day is on April 22, 2020, and in light of that, this blog post will highlight some of the ways that farmers are being stewards of the land they use and protecting the environment. Farmers are often ridiculed for the impact that agriculture has on the environment. To be fair, agriculture does have an impact on greenhouse gas emissions, like most industries. That is true. However, often the good things that farmers are doing to help protect our environment are overlooked, so that will be the focus of this blog post!

Cover Crops

A cover crop is a crop that is planted after a field is harvested. In Iowa, a farmer might grow corn in a field and plant a cover crop of cereal rye by using a high clearance seeder or by airplane in the early fall. These crops are not planted to make a great economic


Iowa Cover Crop

impact on the farmer’s bank account by growing and harvesting them, but rather to make a great impact on the environment and quality of the soil. Cover crops make the soil more absorptive, which allows for water to be soaked in the land instead of running off into streams. They also help with the runoff of nitrates and phosphorous. Nitrates feed plants, so they need to stick around in fields. Phosphorous is important for plants to perform essential functions like photosynthesis. In Iowa, the most common cover crops are cereal, radishes, oats, and wheat. Iowa farmers care about the land, and it shows, as the number of acres of cover crops planted has increased significantly in recent history. In 2017, Iowa farmers planted 1.5 million acres of cover crops! This information is from the Iowa Farm Bureau, and you can learn more about soil conservation from our previous blog post, Soil and Water Conservation Practices – What are they doing?


Livestock Health

It is no secret that cow eructations and flatulence (farts and burps) causes methane to be released into the air, which is a greenhouse gas, known for its negative impact on the atmosphere. However, there are a few things to think about that can help break down that problem. Farmers are now growing livestock much more efficiently than they did in the past. For example, we are now growing fewer cattle but producing more beef since 1980. This is a result of feeding cattle more nutritious feed and using selective breeding to grow higher producing cattle. (Introduction to Animal Science) There is also research being done on putting different fats like sunflower oil and seeds into cattle feed, which was found to produce less methane. Scientists have also been working on supplements and vaccines for cattle to help cut down on methane production. To read more about these studies, visit Health For Animals.

Windbreak Trees

Not only are farmers committed to helping the earth for their benefit, but they are also


Picture from Natural Resources Conservation Service

committed to making it more enjoyable for those around them. Windbreak trees are a row of trees that slow the wind. Windbreak trees are often seen near hog barns. They have been around for a long time, but their purpose remains the same. Stop the smell! This helps keep the neighbors happy, but there are other earth-preserving purposes behind the use of windbreak trees. One main reason is that windbreak trees save energy, which is an issue in our world today. Conserving energy is very important, and windbreak trees can help by saving 7-25% less fuel for heating, according to Iowa State University.


Technology in Farming

This is a broad topic, as technology has changed significantly over the past 100 years (you can read about it on our blog post, 5 Ways Technology Has Changed Farming), but one result is very obvious. Technology helps farmers do more with less. Using a GPS to plant or chisel plow now means using less fuel to do those jobs. Looking at soil composition in a field means that farmers can know what nutrients that soil needs to yield well, and can apply them in the correct amount, which can help with issues like runoff. Calculating a feed ration for cattle using technology means that they are fed a perfectly mixed ration, leading them to produce more efficiently. Pig barns are heated and cooled using technology, allowing the barn to use only as much energy as is needed.

This Earth Day, think about the people that use the earth to provide everyone with vital Pink Black Photo Brush National Kissing Day Social Media Graphicproducts. Farmers care about the earth, and they are taking measures to protect it. Earth Day may look a little different this year, but one way to celebrate is by taking time to learn about the earth and the people who use it, by listening to a podcast or reading a blog post! Happy Earth Day!



Explaining Sustainability to Students

Remember finding a quarter as a kid? That used to be huge for me when I was young! If I had a quarter, I could get not just one, but two gumballs from the local convenience store. If I walked a little out of my way, and ventured past the bakery, I could bring home an entire loaf of day-old-bread. A quarter doesn’t go as far today.

We are fortunate to live in a society of abundance. What we want and what we think we need is sometimes as simple as a click away. We expect our items to be at the grocery store when we want them. Phrases like “out-of-stock” frustrate us. The idea of having to ration our food or money is almost unfathomable. So how do we then teach our students about sustainable agriculture and how most resources are limited?

journey 2050 photo

Journey 2050 takes students on a virtual farm simulation. This helps students explore sustainable agriculture on a global level. Each section of the game play is paired with a lesson plan that teachers can walk students through to ensure they have a good grasp of the concepts. The program encourages students to make decisions and adjust them as they see their impact on society, the environment, and the economy at a local and global scale. The students learn about farmers across the globe to learn about climate, market, and other various differences worldwide.

As the student interacts with each family, they learn the role of best management practices in feeding the world, reducing environmental impacts and in improving social performance through greater access to education, medical care, and community infrastructure.

To help understand sustainability, imagine a wooden barrel, made equally with three parts; economy, society, and environment. If you can only fill the barrel as high as the lowest slat on the barrel. The lowest slat becomes the most important and the one that should be addressed or fixed. To increase your overall sustainability, you have to raise that one lowest slat of the barrel.

Sustainability is a combination of these three areas – economic, social, and environmental. Most people are familiar with environmental sustainability, which includes maintaining soil health, protecting wildlife habitats, ensuring clean water, and reducing greenhouse gas emissions. But none of those things are possible without ALSO being economically sustainable.

Being economically sustainable means farmers can generate profit and help pay for those things to help protect the environment. Being economically sustainable also means that jobs are created, incomes can be earned, and the community can support itself. But those things aren’t possible without also being socially sustainable.

learning about Sustainability

Middle school student evaluates the sustainability level of his virtural farm.

Being socially sustainable means people have food to eat to keep them healthy, that they are well educated about the issues, and that the community has infrastructure like roads, electricity, etc. to help make things work smoothly and efficiently. These three elements of sustainability closely rely on each other.

The Journey 2050 program helps students understand that in agriculture and elsewhere there are finite resources. If students run out of money, they won’t be able to plant their next field. They have to wait to harvest and next time possibly prioritize spending differently. Students have to understand how to manage finite water resources, nutrient resources, and money resources. They need to manage their time. Sometimes, time is up before the harvest can be completed. The resources the student has invested into a particular field, have now been lost. Disappointment can be a powerful motivator to help students be more aware of the time. Just like in real life, farmers have only a certain amount of time to harvest their crops too. Managing all of these elements efficiently can lead to a sustainable farming operation.


Seventh grade student applying the correct level of moisture to the field. Note the sustainability barrel in the lower left corner.

Students get really excited when working with the Journey 2050 program. They shout things like, “I just bought a wind turbine to produce my own energy sustainably!” And, “I just made $140,000 harvesting my corn”. One student even commented, “Did you know I bought a well that is going to save lives by providing safe drinking water?”

farmers 2050For those students that just can’t get enough, there is also an at-home version of the game that is available as a mobile app called Farmers 2050. Farmers 2050 applies many of the same concepts, but then takes them further by turning raw farm products into finished goods (apples to apple juice or apple pies). Then players can sell their goods to other people in their community and other people around the world. This really gives students an understanding of how global agriculture is and how we can all contribute to a more sustainable world.

Teaching students about sustainability has benefits beyond understanding about how to feed the world in the future. If conscious thought is given to using what we have now to the best of our ability and making sure we conserve resources for future generations, I believe we can help our children live more satisfied lives now.


How’s the Air Up There?

Driving along Interstate 80 brings many sights to see. Rolling fields, quaint wooden barns, and the occasional herd of cattle might be what you expect across the beautiful Iowa landscape. But have you ever looked up and wondered “what in the world are those tall wind mills for?” Would you believe you are seeing a massive network of energy producing wind turbines?

blog photo of wind turbine

Wind turbine in an Iowa field. Oats have been seeded along the a gravel pathway.

Interspersed along the everyday and ordinary are highly technologically advanced devices used to capture the speed of wind and turn it into electricity. Yes, they are actually wind turbines and not wind mills. Wind mills do mechanical work like pumping water, whereas wind turbines use the motion from the wind to generate electricity.
It is well known that Iowa is famous for its corn and soybean production (ranked #1 for corn and #2 for soybeans). Corn produces a renewable fuel called ethanol and soybeans can be used to make a renewable fuel called biodiesel. The wind turbines use another renewable resource (wind) to produce energy (electricity).

How do they work? Take a look at the three main parts of the turbine, the blades, the shaft, and the generator.

parts of wind turbine

Diagram of the parts of a wind turbine.

• The long parts of the wind turbine that you see spinning is called the blade and transfers the wind’s energy to the rotor. There are usually three blades, but some turbines might have more or less than three.

The shaft is the horizontal part inside the wind turbine that transfers the mechanical energy into rotational energy. Each blade connects to the shaft.

• The rotational energy of the shaft turns magnets in a generator around a coil of wires. The generator uses the difference in the electrical charge (positive charge in the magnets moving the negatively charged electrons in the wires) to produce a change in voltage, electrical pressure, and that current is driven through power lines for consumers to use.
Wind turbines are tall with one of the newest models standing at 650 feet.

ground view looking up

The newest models of wind turbines stand at 650 feet, taller that Seattle’s Space Needle!

That is taller than Seattle’s Space Needle! This height allows the turbine to catch the faster and less turbulent wind. The wind needs to move at least seven miles per hours for the blades to turn. When the wind flows across the blade, the air pressure on one side of the blade decreases. The difference in air pressure across the two sides of the blade creates both lift and drag. The force of the lift is stronger than the drag and this causes the rotor to spin. This is the same physics that give airplanes lift and allow them to fly! So how many wind turbines are there in Iowa? According to the U.S. Wind Turbine Database, there are more than 4,500 in Iowa. Turbines need to be spaced out from each other to catch the most wind. The distances in this case are expressed in rotor diameters. The general rule-of-thumb for wind farm spacing is that turbines are about seven rotor diameters away from each other. So an 80-meter (262-foot) rotor would need to be 560 meters – more than a third of a mile – from adjacent turbines. The amount of land that is needed for the turbine would include the tower pad, the power substation, and a new access road to the wind turbine or approximately 1.5 acres.

view of turbine with lane leading up to it

The wind turbine stands at the end of an access road.

Where are they located? All over! Using the viewer feature from the U.S. Geological Survey, you can scroll over the entire country to see where turbines are located. Information provided for each turbine includes, an identification number, the wind project name, what year the turbine went online, the turbine model number, as well as latitude and longitude of each site.

To make sure there is enough room in between wind turbines, wide open Iowa farm ground is a popular location to install them. Iowa also has pretty steady wind speeds (above the seven miles per hour required). Farmers can supplement their income by leasing their land to energy companies while still raising a crop. But because of the 1.5 acres required, it does take some farm ground out of production. Farmers have to decide if they will be able to make more money growing a crop or leasing the ground. Farmers can also work together to create a cooperative and own their wind turbines. With this option they sell the power back to the electrical companies and put the electricity into the grid.

wind farm in distance

Wind farm showing multiple wind turbines, miles apart.

How much energy do Iowa’s wind turbines produce? Iowa generated more than 34% of its electricity used through wind turbines. That is the second highest share for any state. That’s a lot of wind power!
Whether you are talking about corn, soybeans, or wind, our state is full of renewable resources!


Agriculture Products Differ with Geography: Iowa vs. Panama

-Traveling leaves you speechless

-Adventures are the best-the journeyBefore participating in a study abroad, I had heard all of these sayings before: “Traveling leaves you speechless and turns you into a storyteller!” “Adventures are the best way to learn!” “The journey is the destination!” They sounded exciting, thrilling, and had an immense call to action for me. This, accompanied with my desire to learn more about agriculture on an international level, really pushed me to apply for a travel course. Fortunately, I was accepted into a two-week program that would provide exposure to Panama’s agriculture products and international business model. I toured both family and corporation owned farms, specializing in animal production, meat processing, and crop management. It’s second nature for me to compare all of these processes to those in the U.S., and specifically Iowa while analyzing their efficiency, safety, and overall productivity given the difference in climate and soils. After returning to the states, I had an entirely new view upon international agriculture and hope to broaden your perspectives on the agriculture industry!

Does Panama produce corn like Iowa?

It’s a known fact that Iowa is great at growing and selling corn. So, it’s a given that this is the first question I asked myself. The short answer is, that while Panama does grow corn, it’s nothing compared to the yield and quality of Iowa’s maize. To obtain some reliable numbers, I used the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations website and the USDA National Agricultural Statistics Service website. In 2017, Panama produced just over 5 billion bushels of corn and Iowa produced 2.6 billion bushels. At first glance this might seem as though Panama is clearly ahead of Iowa, however, this doesn’t take into account the yield of this crop. Panama’s yield averaged 32.5 bushels per acre, compared to Iowa’s whopping 202 bu/ac. To put this huge difference of yields into perspective, if Panama could grow corn as efficiently as Iowa then their yields would be 6.2 times higher, roughly making their total production reach 31.8 million bushels.

So now that we know where Panama stands on corn production, it’s a good idea to determine what’s accounting for this huge difference from their potential yields. This is the first question I asked upon meeting a Panamanian maize grower. He said his corn normally averages 130 bu/ac, which is significantly higher than the national average. He planted corn on land with higher slopes because maize is more suitable for it than some of his other cash crops. Management practices vary a lot from the U.S., the two biggest differences being that they plant non-GMO crops and use minimal chemical application. Most farmers we encountered were certified organic, and make minimal to no post-emergence applications. One downside is the lack of protection against pest damage. Even though this management practice yields much lower than alternatives, the farm is able to stay financially stable thanks to the organic premium received upon selling the crop. Another key factor affecting their corn yields is knowing that the soil has a high percentage of clay. This could be beneficial during droughts but can be detrimental during tropical storms with high rainfall accumulation. I believe that if the soils were more of a loam and had more water drainage qualities, this would help boost the yield and production of maize in this country. It’s also important to realize that because of Panama’s tropical climate, this area is much more suitable for effectively producing other crops.


This Panamanian corn is hand planted at 29,000 plants/ac and yields 130 bu/ac.


This ear of corn grown in the southern peninsula of Panama only filled about 2/3 of the entire ear.




Agroforestry – what is it?

Agroforestry is an uncommon term in the Midwest, especially in Iowa, but is more well-known in countries like Panama. Simply put: agroforestry is the incorporation of trees and shrub-like plants into a crop and/or animal production system, usually reaping benefits from economic and environmental aspects. The most impressionable agroforestry production I visited was a cacao plantation grown and managed by a Panamanian indigenous tribe. On the side of a steep hill underneath the canopy of a forest, there were crops grown for consumption, fiber materials, and various other plants that fall under the realm of subsistence farming. An interesting fact about the cacao tree is that it actually grows best in a partially to fully shaded area! This, and the need for a tropical climate, are the two main reasons why cacao cannot be commercially produced in Iowa. The Ngobe Bugle tribe’s lifestyle and family traditions revolve around the cacao tree. The chocolate plant not only provides the main source of income for the community, but it also holds together their culture and traditions. The trees normally produce three crops throughout the year, and the entire first crop is used for tribal activities and festivities. The remaining harvest is sold internationally through an organic cooperative. Since the Ngobe Bugle people consider themselves to be one with the land, they choose not to apply pesticides, herbicides, or artificial fertilizers to their crop. There is a downside to this production method, which is the susceptibility and infestation of pests and diseases.

Cacao trees start the reproductive growth phase with many flowers emerging from its branches. These flowers can only be pollinated by tiny insects and flies because they are simply too small for bees or other pollinators to pollinate. Of these flowers, about 60% are killed by a virus. This virus could be minimized and prevented with modern technology and chemicals, however, this would conflict with and disrupt the Ngobe Bugle’s lifestyle. Of the remaining 40% of flowers that are pollinated and start producing a pod, only 20% successfully make it to harvest. The rest are lost to crickets, fungi, worms, and severe weather events. This means that the cacao trees are only yielding at 20% of their potential. 

While I’m looking at this from an agronomist’s perspective and classifying it as a major problem, the indigenous tribe sees no issues with their production system. They make just enough money to break even with the organic premium they receive when selling with the cooperative. At first, this ideology was difficult for me to comprehend. In all areas of agriculture production in the U.S., the producers and growers are striving to improve in the upcoming year’s production and quality. If yield remains stagnant or decreases, that’s typically reason for producers to reevaluate some of their management choices. If there’s ever a new tactic for improvement or an increase in yield, there’s a high likelihood the producer is willing to try it. This idea of becoming more efficient and productive is not present in the Ngobe Bugle people, since they’re subsistence farmers. They only grow what they need, and have no reason to produce excess. This is just another difference and aspect of the global agriculture industry that many never have the chance to see.

It’s easy to be caught up with learning more about the agriculture industry in Iowa, and the Midwest in general, but it’s important to take a step back and look at it with a wider scope. It’s quite interesting to see and be able to visualize how the sole state of Iowa is able to help produce, and compete in yields, on a global scale. One must also realize why Iowa is an ideal location for corn production, and on the other hand appreciate why some crops are better grown in varying areas. So I encourage you to go out and learn about a foreign agriculture product that you’re interested in and/or are confused with how it’s grown! Our goal of becoming more agriculturally literate doesn’t stop with corn and livestock production in Iowa, it fits into a much larger scheme of things!


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?


Farming By Numbers

Soybeans harvested by students

“So, what number soybeans are these?” asks a fourth-grade student in a class I presented to this fall. I had come to his school to teach about agriculture. More specifically, I came to teach about the life cycle of a soybean plant. I gathered mature soybean plants from fields and delivered them to local classrooms to be “harvested”. Students then planted the harvested soybeans in a mini green house with grow lamps to help the beans sprout quickly. During my second classroom visit they examined the new spouts and labeled each plant part.

After being stumped by a nine-year-old, I paused for a moment. He was putting my agricultural knowledge to the test. I was hesitant to tell him that I didn’t know, but mostly I was impressed. This young man knew there were different soybeans with different numbers. Fewer and fewer students are growing up on the farm. But, this student reminded me that there are still a few tried and true farmers in most of the classrooms I visit.

“I am not sure.” I told him, “but I can sure find out.”

One of the best pieces of advice that I ever received was that if you don’t know the answer, make sure you keep asking until you do. Go find out. So that is what I did. I went to my husband, a third-generation farmer, and asked him. He went to his seed dealer and asked him “What number soybeans did we put on the homeplace?” Our seed dealer was able to tell us because of an identification system used by seed companies. Types of seed are labeled with numbers that identify the characteristics of the seed that is to be planted. That way if a farmer is satisfied with the performance of the seed they could choose to replant that same seed next year.  An example of a seed number could look like this:

“Refer to bag tag for specific trait information”


• X would indicate the brand or company that produced the seed
• The first two numbers could indicate the maturity of the seed, that is, how long it takes to plant to be ready for harvest
• The next two numbers would be for more specific identification
• And lastly, the letters on the end could indicate what types of traits that seed possesses

Soil map of farm in Harrison County
Test plot

Seed numbers provide more information about what a farmer is planting. Farmers have a lot of choices when it comes time to plant. Because not every field is the same, specific seed choices allow farmers to pinpoint exactly what they want grown on the field and where. Say you are headed to the grocery store for a warm winter meal. As you enter the soup aisle the cans don’t all just say “soup”. You know what kind of soup you are getting by reading the label. You identify what type you are looking for and choose one that fits your requirements. Clam chowder might be a good choice, but not if you are hungry for tomato.

With the limited amount of space that farmers can grow food for ourselves and our animals, it is important that we do the best we can with the space that we do have. The cost of raising a crop is substantial. It is very important for farmers to make the best use of every soybean seed and every kernel of seed corn that comes out of a bag – all 80,000 of them in the case of seed corn. Farmers map out each specific area, utilizing every acre to its maximum potential.

As a kid, I used to love the paint-by-number artwork. Each section had a corresponding color and if you got the numbers right… success! In some ways, successful farming can be “by the numbers” too. Farmers work with agronomists to test the soil in different areas of their farms. By using the results of these soil maps and by working closely with their seed dealers, a farmer can put the corresponding seed number in the appropriate soil types…success!

As I continue to visit classrooms in the area, students are using their young minds to expand my own knowledge. They ask questions and want to know more. No matter how prepared I think that I am for a classroom presentation, there is always an unexpected question (or two or three).
“Why do these soybean pods have little hairs on them?”
“How come your grow lamp has red and blue lights?”
“Can we eat the soybeans?”

Teaching for Loess Hills Agriculture in the Classroom is a job that will never get boring. If students continue to have questions about agriculture, then I will continue to answer them or seek out someone who is familiar with farming by numbers.


Grain Cart: What is it and why do farmers use them?

The equipment used to harvest corn and soybeans has changed a lot since my childhood days of riding along in the combine with my dad for hours on end. And I’m not only talking about the low-tech, 150-bushel, six-row combine compared to the eight-row, 320-bushel combine with mapping technology, a real-time yield monitor, and surround-sound stereo system that my brother runs today. How farmers haul grain in and from the field has changed just as much and played a significant role in improving harvest speed.

Thirty years ago, three pieces of equipment were commonplace in fields during harvest. A combine, a gravity flow wagon or two, and a tractor to pull the wagons. When the combine hopper was full, the farmer would drive the combine to the end of the field, wait for the corn to unload, and then drive back across the field to continue picking corn. While this worked well, the combine operator could spend just as much time driving to and from the wagon and unloading as they did picking corn. If ground was dry, the wagons could be parked at the end field, relatively close to where the combine was working in the field at the time. But if the field was wet, they would have to be parked in a dry spot close to the field driveway or even on the road. Pulling a stuck wagon full of corn out of the mud never ends well, so it is best to play it safe.


While some grain farmers still use gravity flow wagons today, most do not usually unload the combine directly into wagons. Instead they use a grain cart, also called an augur cart, to bring the corn from the combine to the wagon or truck at the end of the field. Grain carts have large, flotation tires or tracks, which enable them to be easily pulled nearly anywhere in the field – even in muddy conditions. A grain cart can increase harvest efficiency by more than 25 percent because they enable the combine to keep picking corn almost non-stop.

The big benefit of using a grain cart is the ability to unload the corn from the combine’s hopper into the grain cart while the combine continues to pick corn. The person driving the tractor pulling the grain cart carefully pulls up next to the combine and drives the same speed as the combine. Once their speed is matched, the combine driver pushes a button to begin unloading corn. They both continue to drive and in about two minutes the combine hopper is empty. The grain cart operator pulls away from the combine and the combine continues to harvest corn solo until the hopper almost full again. After a few loads the grain cart operator drives to the end of the field and unloads it into a semi-truck or wagons.

Efficiently running the tractor and grain cart takes skill and is a fast-paced job. The cart operator is always doing something – getting grain, driving to and from the truck, or unloading grain. The operator needs to be able to think ahead and anticipate when and where they need to be. When heading across the field, they should drive to where the combine will be, not where it is now. Their goal is to keep the combine running non-stop.

A 450-bushel grain cart was the first big purchase my brother made when he began farming with my dad in 1994. Today he owns a 1,000-bushel grain cart that will fill my dad’s semi-truck trailer in one load. My brother runs the combine, his wife operates the tractor and grain cart, and my dad drives the truck to haul the grain from the field to where they are storing or selling the grain. While my brother technically harvests all of the family’s corn, it takes the whole team to keep the operation running.


Iowa’s Native Super Fruit

Prepare to pucker up. Because this tart little treat of a blog will show you the sweet benefits of this antioxidant packed fruit grown right here in Iowa.

IMG_4057.JPGAronia berries or black chokeberries are native to the eastern U.S. and do well on plains of the Midwest and are grown throughout Iowa. They are about the size of blueberries and have a rich dark purple color. They grow in clusters or bunches, kind of like grapes. The plants are woody shrubs and will grow up to eight feet tall.

While this little berry can be sweet and full of juice, like the name chokeberry implies, it is also bitter and astringent tasting. The fruit has a lot of tannins in the skin that when eaten creates a dry or chalky sensation in the mouth. The berries can be used in cooking which lessens the tannins or can be used to make wine or jam.

Why these fruits have received some notoriety over the past several years is because of their potential health benefits. There have been studies to suggest a positive impact on cancer prevention, diabetes management, organ health, blood pressure, coronary disease, and more. There has even been a study that suggests aronia could help manage obesity (the study was on rats). The key is that these little berries pack a powerful punch of all the good stuff. They are loaded with vitamin C, folate, vitamins B, and more. They also have one of the highest concentrations of antioxidants present in berries.


As a specialty crop, aronia berries will probably never compete with corn and soybeans here in Iowa. But the market is growing and an increasing number of farmers are planting aronia patches. The plant is very hardy and relatively drought resistant, pest resistant, and disease resistant. It adapts well to a wide range of soil types and conditions though well-drained soil is most ideal.

Aronia work well for small scale production because they are relatively low maintenance. Mowing around the bushes helps keep the weeds down so they don’t have to compete for water, nutrients, or sunlight. They don’t require spraying, watering, or much other care after the initial planting. Because many aronia plots are small, harvest can be done by hand. As the berries grow in bunches, it is easy to strip the berries off quickly. A five gallon bucket (approximately 22 pounds of berries) can be filled in roughly an hour.

IMG_4064a.jpgAronia are one of many options offered as u-pick fruit where anyone can pick their own fruit in season. When picking, the aronia berries do stain your hands, but the color washes right off with a little soap and water. The U-Pick season is winding down but you can still find apples and some other late season fruits. Find a farm near you by using this directory: http://www.pickyourown.org/IA.htm. Contact the farm directly to learn what fruit is in season and what prices/fees are for picking. It is a great family activity.

For larger fields, mechanical harvest is available. It does come at a price and may cost up to $0.60 per pound of berries harvested. Berry harvesters for blueberries, raspberries, aronia, and similar berries will use tines or flappers to release the berries. The machine drives over the tops of the bushes with the flappers on each side. The berries fall into a catchment system and are carried to bins via conveyor belt. The trick of mechanical harvest is to provide enough force to remove the berry from the stem, but to be gentle enough to not bruise, crush or otherwise damage the berries. There are a couple different systems that are used for this mechanical harvest. Check out the videos and take a look at the mechanical planting system as well.

IMG_2587.JPGOne of our summer teacher professional development workshops had the opportunity to tour an aronia berry farm that was scaling up. Levi’s Indigenous Fruit Enterprises (LIFE) supplies the berries to a number of grocery stores and cooperatives in south central Iowa. Many of the aronia berries also go to make jams, jellies, and wine. The proprietor – Levi – also grows a number of native fruits like tart cherries, paw paw fruit, and others.

IMG_2631a.jpgLevi has also invested in sorting machines to help him package and sell the berries. While the berries are all relatively similar in size, the sizes can still vary. Sorting machines like this old blueberry sorter will help group like sized berries together so they can be packaged and sold accordingly. Larger berries might go whole to grocery stores and consumers. Smaller berries might get turned into jams, wine, or juice. These machines also help remove any leaves, stems, or other debris that might have been collected during harvest. Technology on farms comes in all shapes and sizes and it is technology like this sorter that help make one aspect of the job easier.

These tart little berries might not be for everyone, but adding a few to your diet could have some health benefits. And the bonus is that it is an Iowa crop! So enjoy the pucker!