Target Grade Level / Age Range:



30 minutes


Students will learn about key points in Iowa’s agricultural history, while gaining writing and sequencing skills.


Suggested Companion Resources:


  • Farmer: Someone who owns or manages a farm
  • Product: something that is made or grown
  • By-product: usually a non-food item or part of the plant or animal that can be used to make other things (other products); it is usually a less obvious part of a product
  • Crop: a cultivated plant that is grown as a product or commodity to sell
  • Livestock: farm animals that are raised for profit (to sell)
  • Good: an item you can buy that you want or need
  • Botanist: a person who studies plants
  • Hybrid: a plant made from combining two different plants of the same kind
  • Genetics: the study of how living things are controlled by genes
  • Glaciers: huge sheets of ice

Background – Agricultural Connections:

  • This lesson looks at a few key points in Iowa’s agricultural history. Each point will be outlined below. The background information listed here may be helpful to use while explaining them to students in the lesson. The timeline points are:
    • Glaciers covered Iowa
      • In the lesson, it is noted for students to write “2,500,000 – 10,500 years ago” under this point. Realistically Iowa was not covered in glaciers for that entire time period, but Iowa did undergo multiple glaciations, which ranged that timespan.
      • The oldest glaciers were pre-Illinoisan period, and covered the entire state. The newest glacier only covered the north-central part of the state, and that was only about 10,500 years ago.
      • This is important to agriculture, because the state’s primary soil parent material (where it came from) is glacial till. All of our livestock are possible because of our crops. All of our crops are possible because of our fertile soils, and all of our fertile soils are possible because of glaciation. It all started there!
      • More information about Iowa’s glaciation can be found here:
    • Native Americans plant crops and establish societies
      • From a social studies perspective, this is an important shift in culture. When societies move from hunting and gathering to organized agriculture like farming, they are able to do much more with their time. Suddenly, not everyone needs to find food. People are able to build cities, make art, establish governments, trade, create education systems, and everything else!
      • Iowa’s Native American tribes had begun planting crops and establishing societies by the Woodland period (1000 BC – 1000 AD).
      • During discussion on this piece, it could be possible to touch on Iowa’s various Native American tribes. Some of the most noteworthy are the Mound Builders, Dakota Sioux, Ioway, Sac, Fox (Musquakie), Otoe, Missouri, and Illini. Other tribes were later moved to Iowa from locations like Michigan and Wisconsin during the mid-1800s.
      • A fantastic resource for this material can be found here:
    • European settlers began moving to Iowa
      • While this landmark itself doesn’t seem agricultural, settlers immediately began building farms once arriving in Iowa. The steel moldboard plow invented by John Deere had already been on the market for a few years by the time Iowa was being settled. The plows made quick work of breaking the thick, prairie sod Iowa had to offer.
      • More information about Iowa’s early agriculture can be found here:
    • Farmers began moving from wheat production to corn and livestock production
      • Part of what defines Iowa agriculture today is what we produce. It was during the Civil War that we started discovering what our niche should be, and it was corn. Previously, wheat was produced largely, but after years of astronomical insect damage, degrading soil, and low wheat prices, farmers began moving to higher price-fetching corn. They quickly discovered that Iowa soils are great for growing corn, and worked with rotating crops like oats to break up pest cycles and add different nutrients to the soils. Fertilizers had not yet been popularized.
    • Famous botanist, George Washington Carver begins studying at Iowa State University
      • Technically, it wasn’t Iowa State University at that time, but George Washington Carver became the first African-American student at the college in 1891. He had always been interested in plants, but ended up studying the arts at Simpson College in Indianola, IA before attending Iowa State. One of his professors at Simpson noted his inclination for drawing plants, and suggested he attend Iowa State Agricultural College to study botany. He did, and stayed until he received his master’s degree.
      • Though most of his research occurred during his stay at Tuskegee Institute after his Iowa State days, he remains a prominent and influential historical figure, agriculturalist, and Iowan.
      • More information about George Washington Carver can be found here:
    • The Golden Age of Agriculture Begins
      • Farms previously to the 20 th century were more of a homestead. More people lived on farms and simply produced what they needed. At the turn of the century, technology turned farming into more of a business. Less labor was needed, so more people moved into towns to work in factories, shops, and other places. More farming could be done by less people in less time. Agriculture was then – and still is – very relevant to society, but this point is where we see a change in how farming was done.
    • Henry A. Wallace founds the Hi-Bred Corn Company
      • The Wallace family has done a plethora of things for the state of Iowa, as well as the country as a whole. Henry A.’s father (Henry C. Wallace) was at Iowa State when George Washington Carver was studying there, and the two developed a friendship when Henry A. was still very young. George and Henry A. would walk through test plots and discuss plant breeding and plant health. Henry A. went on to be very curious about genetics (which was a new science then) and statistics. In the 1920s, he was one of the few people who had a grasp on hybrids. Hybrid crops are crops that have been crossbred with two different strains of the same plant. This helps give the plant extra vigor, and can combine multiple positive traits not previously found together.
      • Wallace’s Hi-Bred Corn Company eventually became Pioneer.
      • Henry A. Wallace went on to become the United States Secretary of Agriculture, Vice President of the United States, and even ran for president in 1948 under the Progressive Party ticket.
      • The Wallace family also founded the agricultural publication Wallaces’ Farmer, which is still being produced in Des Moines.
      • More information about Henry A. Wallace and the Wallace family can be found here:
    • Present
      • Many things have happened in agriculture since 1926, most of which we can thank new technologies for. Some possibilities might be:
        • Scientific uses of fertilizers
          • Farmers have been experimenting with different types of fertilizers for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1940s that enough research had been done to identify the necessary nutrients for plants, and for those nutrients to become popularly available to farmers.
        • Genetic engineering
          • Specifically meaning crops that have had DNA altered within a lab setting. This can include crops that contain DNA from two species, like Bt crops.
            • Bt crops are among the most common genetic alteration. Bt stands for a soil bacterium that naturally kills specific types of caterpillars. The protein that does this was isolated and inserted into the DNA of corn and soybeans. This makes it so that when a corn stalk is being eaten by a European corn borer or other damaging pest, the pest itself will die, and the plant will continue to be able to grow.
        • Variable rate technology
          • Sometimes called VRT, this is a way that farmers can apply different amounts of fertilizer or other inputs on the same plot of land. Some soil types or landforms may require more or less fertilizer to be the most productive, so computers can calculate the dosage, and can pair with field maps and GPS technology to apply just what is needed in each specific location.
        • GPS
          • GPS in tractors has made many other technologies possible. Maps are made each time a farmer passes through a field that can help document yield, planting, population, fertilizer application, and other things.
        • Autosteer
          • Tractors can drive themselves now! Farmers still need to be in the vehicle in case they need to override the system, but maps can be made and pre-programed to make the tractor drive a specific path.
        • Mapping systems
          • Farmers are able to create maps and use their data on yields, soil types, etc., to help farm in the most efficient way.
        • “Big Data”
          • Big Data is the term for all of the data that modern farm equipment now collects. There are companies now that will help farmers sort through all of their data to help them understand what all of it means for them.
        • Herbicides
          • Herbicides are a fascinating science, and one that farmers have gotten quite used to having. There are many different modes of action that herbicides can have. Farmers try to balance different modes of action in their pest management plans to help discourage weed resistance from happening.
        • Pesticides
          • Though farmers are able to use less pesticides now, thanks to genetically engineered Bt crops, some pests, like aphids, still must be controlled with pesticides.
        • Other non-technology ideas that could be present day landmarks could be:
          • Second highest state in total agriculture cash receipts
          • Top state in producing pork, corn, soybeans, and eggs
          • #8 state in cattle
          • #10 wool producing state

Interest Approach or Motivator:

  1. Ask students: What is a farmer?  Allow students to share, and write their answers on chart paper. Discuss the definition of a farmer.
    1. Challenge students if they use stereotypical answers like overalls, old men, etc. Can women be farmers? What about people in towns and cities? Can you farm on rooftops and mountains and deserts?
  2. On a separate piece of chart paper, make a T-chart of different things farmers might raise/grow.  On the left side of the T-chart write ‘ livestock/crop’ and define these terms with students.  Some ideas: cows, pigs, corn, soybeans, chickens, and any others that students might come up with!
  3. Review the list with students and ask for any additional ideas.  On the right side of the T-chart write ‘ product’ and define.  Discuss what products we get from cows and pigs specifically.  Ask students to discuss these products and why they are important to us.  (Beef and dairy from cows, pork from pigs, etc.)
  4. Discuss briefly the term by-product.  There are also by-products that we get from plants and animals that can be used to make other products.  See below in the “Did you know” section for ideas to share!


  1. Pose question to students: What would happen if there were no farmers? Allow time to discuss answers. Talk about all of the things that come from production agriculture, varying from eggs and milk to sugar, cotton, leather, lipsticks (animal fat), lotion (sheep’s lanolin), ethanol, and many other things!
  2. Have students take out a sheet of paper and a pencil. Tell them that they will be making a timeline of Iowa agriculture. Tell them to place the paper sideways (landscape), put their name in a top corner, and title their timeline “History of Iowa Agriculture.”
    1. Have students draw a line about ¾ of the way down their paper. This could be done in colored pencil or crayon, if desired.
      1. To save some time, there is a pre-made blank timeline attached as History of Iowa Agriculture.Sample Timeline worksheet.docx.
    2. Note: attached is a document with a sample timeline. There are some landmarks in Iowa agriculture. Each are outlined in the background information. Events may be added or removed as necessary or appropriate for your classroom.
  3. Optional: distribute the 8 cards attached in the Timeline cards.docx document among students. With each point on the timeline, ask students what they think comes next. Students can bring the timeline cards to the front of the room to create a class timeline on the whiteboard, and read the facts on the back of the card.
    1. Note: when printing the timeline cards, be sure that the facts align with the front of the card. Print two-sided and flip on short side.
    2. Once cards are distributed, ask the students what they think the first event is. Who has the card? (Looking for glaciers)
  4. Ask students if they know what glaciers are. (Large sheets of ice.) Did they know that Iowa used to have glaciers? That’s why our soil is the way it is!
    1. Have them write “Glaciers covered Iowa” at the far left side of their timeline.
    2. Below, have them write “2,500,000 – 10,500 years ago”
    3. Ask the student with the “Glaciers moved across Iowa” card to read the facts on the back of the card.
    4. What came after this? (Looking for Native American tribes began planting crops)
  5. Discuss how people learned to farm over time, and that previously people were hunters and gatherers. Because of farming, getting food took less time, and other things could be done, like building cities and creating societies.
    1. Have them write “Native Americans began farming” on their timeline.
    2. The years should be 1000 BC – 1000 AD
    3. Ask the student with the card to read the facts on the back and place it on the correct place on the class timeline.
    4. What came after this? (Looking for European settlers moving to Iowa)
  6. Ask the students if they know what Iowa’s land was like before European settlers moved to it. Much of it was prairie grasslands. Other parts were forested. People plowed the rich, prairie soil and cut down trees to settle here.
    1. Have the students note this by writing “Settlers begin moving to Iowa” on their timeline.
    2. This occurred in 1850.
    3. Ask the student with the card to read the facts and place the card on the class timeline.
    4. What came after this? (Looking for farmers beginning to plant corn and raise livestock)
  7. Ask students what Iowa is known for today. Some good answers could be pigs, corn, or other livestock. Tell students that Iowans didn’t always raise these things! During the Civil War, farmers began planting more corn (instead of wheat) and feeding livestock with it.
    1. Let students note this on their timelines with “Farmers began planting more corn” around the years 1861 – 1865.
    2. Ask the student with the card to read the facts on the card and place it on the class timeline.
    3. What came next? (Looking for George Washington Carver attending Iowa State Agricultural College)
  8. Iowa has had many famous agriculturalists. Ask if students know of any. George Washington Carver studied agriculture in Iowa! He began studying botany at Iowa State Agricultural College (now Iowa State University) in 1891.
    1. Have students note “George Washington Carver began college at Iowa State” for 1891.
    2. Ask the student with the George Washington Carver card to read the facts about him and place the card on the class timeline.
    3. What came next? (Looking for the Golden Age of Agriculture beginning)
  9. Talk to students about “The Golden Age of Agriculture.” The start of the 20 th century denotes the beginning of this era. This is when farming became more efficient, businesslike, and more people started moving to towns.
    1. Denote “The Golden Age of Agriculture” for 1900 on the timelines.
    2. Ask the student with the appropriate card to read the facts and place the card on the timeline.
    3. What came after this? (Looking for Henry A. Wallace founding the Hi-Bred Corn Company)
  10. Another of Iowa’s famous agriculturalists was Henry A. Wallace. Eventually, he went on to become secretary of agriculture and Vice President of the United States, but in Iowa, he founded the Hi-Bred Corn Company. Henry was extremely knowledgeable about genetics, and helped farmers plant better crops!
    1. Have students write “Henry A. Wallace founds the Hi-Bred Corn Company” on their timelines.
    2. The year for this should be 1926.
    3. Ask the student with the appropriate card to read the facts and place it on the class timeline.
    4. What came next? (Looking for modern farms using technology)
  11. Ask students what has happened with Iowa agriculture since 1926. They might say things like bigger tractors, technology, etc. (Other examples can be found in the background information.) Take notes of some of these suggestions on the board.
    1. Finally, have students write “Present” on the right hand side of their timeline. Have them circle it.
    2. Ask the student with the “Today” card to read the facts and add it to the class timeline. Are any of these facts not already on the board?
    3. Have students pick 1-2 things from the list on the board to write next to their “Present” circle.
  12. If possible, allow students to use extra space on the paper to illustrate a couple of their favorite points on the timeline.
  13. End class with a discussion. Ask students what they learned. Did they know Iowa used to be covered in ice? Or that wheat used to be an important crop? What do they think might change about Iowa agriculture in the future?
  14. Collect the timelines. If possible, display them in the room.

Essential Files:

Did you know? (Ag facts):

  • Some things we get from pig by-products: crayons, cement, artist brushes, matches, chalk, glue, button, glass, footballs, rubber, pet food, some types of medical products
  • Some things we get from corn by-products: chips, tires, wallpaper, lollipops, marshmallows, fuel for cars, fireworks, crayons, batteries, chalk, gum, baby food
  • Some things we get from cattle by-products: band-aids, buttons, ice cream, luggage, marshmallows, pencils, shampoo, shoes, dog biscuits
  • Some things we get from soybean by-products: candles, cleaners, furniture, baby formula, paints, salad dressings, plastics, milk, noodles, mayonnaise, ink, pet food
  • Iowa is the leading producer of corn, pigs, soybeans, and eggs in the U.S.

Extension Activities:

  • Do a math lesson by having students find out how many years are in between the points on their timeline.
  • Read the book The Kid Who Changed the World by Andy Andrews as a class. Connect the characters in the book (George Washington Carver, Henry A. Wallace, Norman Borlaug) to their timeline. Have students write a short story of their own using one or all of these characters from what they now know about them.
  • Have students research other key events in Iowa agriculture, and share them with the class.



Megan Vande Voort

Chrissy Rhodes

Organization Affiliation:

Oskaloosa Elementary School

National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes:

  • T5.3-5.c: Explain how agricultural events and inventions affect how Americans live today (e.g., Eli Whitney – cotton gin; Cyrus McCormick – reaper; Virtanen – silo; Pasteur – pasteurization; John Deere – moldboard plow)
  • T5.3-5.f: Understand the agricultural history of an individual’s specific community and/or state

Iowa Core Standards:

  • Social Studies:
    • SS.4.25: Analyze the impact of technological changes in Iowa, across time and place.
    • SS.4.26: Explain how Iowa’s agriculture has changed over time.
  • Language Arts:
    • W.4.2: Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas and information clearly.

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