Farms in Crisis: The Center For Rural Affairs Tackles 1980s Rural Life

Thirty years ago, rural America was in the midst of a farm crisis, one so significant that it’s often simply referred to as “The Farm Crisis.” During this time, things were so bad that many farmers left their profession and sold their farms. For some, the whole situation was more than they could handle. Those that stuck it out endured a long, hard struggle, one that is far from forgotten in the rural Midwest. The Center for Rural Affairs Records, MS 413, now available for research, contains subject files on the farm crisis and illustrates the work that the Center did to help those affected by the crisis.

How did it all start? It seems there were many causes, not the least of which was a “boom and bust” economic cycle. In the early 1970s, an economic boom in agriculture occurred, and by late in the decade signs of a bust became evident. Loan interest rates skyrocketed, less demand from foreign markets helped drive crop prices down, and as a result many farmers couldn’t pay back the loans they were able to take out so cheaply in the ’70s. The impact on the agricultural community was huge, with farms being sold or abandoned and many people moving to urban areas to make a living. The stress on farmers and their families was horrific. It was the worst economic crisis since the Great Depression, but only the agricultural community bore the brunt this time.

MS 413, Box 73, Folder 22

Farm Crisis Manual, published by Rural America. CFRA contributed a great deal of research and material related to Farmers Home Administration (FmHA) to this manual, undated. MS 413, Box 73, Folder 22

The Center for Rural Affairs (CFRA) was established in 1973 as a non-profit organization to advocate for rural interests in politics and to improve the welfare of rural Americans. Naturally, the farm crisis fit right in to their work (and provided new challenges). CFRA conducted research on how to help farmers get through these tough times and worked hard to change policies that had led to the bust, such as those regarding tax subsidies and cheap credit. Not everyone followed the organization’s recommendations on how to get through the crisis, but CFRA labored to guide farmers and policy makers through it nonetheless. While all of this was occurring, CFRA was working on various other projects, which you can read about in the previous link as well as here. CFRA has kept quite busy over the years with various agricultural issues, and their passion is evident throughout their manuscript collection.

MS 413, Box 100, Folder 29

A letter to FmHA from CFRA commenting on proposed changes to the FmHA property management regulations, 1984. MS 413, Box 100, Folder 29

More information on the work that CFRA has done can be found in the collection, along with more information on the farm crisis and many other matters pertaining to agriculture and rural America. Special Collections and University Archives has many other resources on the farm crisis, which can be found in this collections guide. In addition, we have a copy of Iowa Public Television’s 2013 documentary “The Farm Crisis,” also available for viewing here. Stop in and have a look at our resources!

CyPix: Three Farmers and a Dog

Three farmers sitting on a trailer bed - possibly taking a break - with a dog, 1949. RS 16/3/D

Three farmers sitting on a trailer bed taking a break with a dog, 1949. RS 16/3/D

It’s August already! Soon, students will be returning (and arriving for the first time) in droves for a new academic year. But for now, there’s still plenty of summer left to enjoy! We are officially in the “dog days of summer,” trying to find ways to beat the heat and humidity here in Ames. Truth be told, I’m not certain in which season the photo above was taken, but I like to imagine these farmers are taking a break from the heat of their summer work and their trusty farm dog decided to join them (the long sleeves don’t necessarily indicate cool weather – they also serve as protection from the sun and other elements). Sometimes we don’t know much about a photo, and it is therefore open to interpretation. What we do know about this one is that it’s a great image of a small piece of farm life in the 1940s, a life integral to Iowa then and still integral today.

The photo above comes from the Cooperative Extension Service in Agriculture and Home Economics collections, a list of which can be found here. More Extension photos can be found on our Flickr site for those of you wanting to see more. And, if you need to get out of the heat, the Special Collections and University Archives reading room is a great place to cool down and explore Iowa’s agricultural past. See you soon!

CyPix: Say Cheese!

National Dairy Products Judging training with Professor Rosenfield, 1948. (collection/box number)

National Dairy Products Judging training, 1948. RS 9/13/F, Box 708.

In honor of National Dairy Month, above is a photo of students being trained for dairy products judging for a contest in Atlantic City, New Jersey, in October, 1948. Here, some students and their professor are testing cheese products (something I wouldn’t mind doing). Want to know more about dairy production in Iowa and at Iowa State University? Stop by and have a look at the Iowa State Dairy Association Records (MS 65), the Department of Food Technology Laboratory Manuals (RS 9/13/0/5), and the Earl Gullette Hammond Papers (RS 9/13/17). We hope to see you soon!

National Agri-Marketing Association

Another collection is now available for research in Special Collections and University Archives! The National Agri-Marketing Association Records, MS 540, contains the administrative files, conference and event materials, and chapter files of the non-profit professional organization. The collection includes correspondence, meeting minutes, committee records, directories, clippings, conference records, newsletters, chapter reports, photographs, negatives, slides, videotapes, an audio reel, and audiocassettes.

Meeting on women's role in agri-marketing, or "How to Succeed in Agri-Business - Without Being a Man," 1981 circa. Box 41, Folder 29.

Meeting on women’s role in agri-marketing, or “How to Succeed in Agri-Business – Without Being a Man,” 1981 circa. Box 41, Folder 29.

One of the biggest roles of NAMA (est. 1957) is to put on conferences and other professional development events for its members – agri-marketing professionals and students. Their first seminar, “Farmarketing,” was held in 1960 in Chicago, back when the organization was called the Chicago Area Agricultural Advertising Association. Since then, the Agri-Marketing Conference has been held every year all around the United States. Other events they have held include the Outlook Conference, the Marketing Management Conference, the Issues Forum, and various tours and short courses, information and photos of which can be found throughout the collection (see Series 2 in the finding aid).

I want to know why there is a robot in this photo as much as you do. Agri-Marketing Conference, 1981 or 1982. Box 41, Folder 18.

Agri-Marketing Conference, 1981 or 1982 (I want to know why there is a robot in this photo as much as you do). Box 41, Folder 18.

Enjoying a golf outing at the 1984 Agri-Marketing Conference. Box 41, Folder 24.

Enjoying a golf outing at the 1984 Agri-Marketing Conference. Box 41, Folder 24.

More information can be found in the collection, along with images, audio, and video. Related collections include National Agri-Marketing Association. Iowa Chapter Records (MS 57), National Agri-Marketing Association. Midwest Chapter Records (MS 64), National Agri-Marketing Association. Missouri/Kansas Chapter Records (MS 83), and National Agriculture Day Records (MS 66), all of which are worth seeing if this new collection strikes your fancy. Stop by sometime!

CyPix: Alfalfa leaf harvester

March 18 is National Ag Day, founded by the Agriculture Council of America “to recognize and celebrate the abundance provided by agriculture.” Here at Iowa State, we know that the production of agriculture would not be nearly so abundant without the ingenuity and problem-solving expertise of agricultural engineers. One of agricultural engineering’s bright lights is retired ISU Professor Wes Buchele, best known for the design of the large round baler, as well as numerous contributions to the field of agricultural machinery safety.

Alfalfa leaf harvester, circa 1966. Wesley Fisher Buchele Papers, RS 9/7/52, Box 19, Folder 1.

Alfalfa leaf harvester, circa 1966. Wesley Fisher Buchele Papers, RS 9/7/52, Box 19, Folder 1.

Here is a photo of an alfalfa leaf harvester, another of Buchele’s contributions to the design of more efficient farm machinery.

Please join ISU Special Collections in celebrating National Ag Day! To find out more about Wes Buchele, check out this finding aid. More collections related to agricultural engineering can be found in RS 9/7, Department of Agricultural and Biosystems Engineering.

CyPix: “Dirt Farm Editing” with Ray Anderson

Ray Anderson at his typewriter, undated. (MS 61, box 1, folder 9)

Ray Anderson at his typewriter, undated. (MS 61, box 1, folder 9)

“Dirt Farm Editing,” perhaps it should be called for I try to tamp my stories full of dirt but never to dish it out. Clean dirt, the kind that grows your bacon and eggs, the “dirt farmer” sort of dirt, including muck, mire, mud and manure, but just the same the soil and soul of the nation.

– Ray Anderson. “My Stories are Full of Dirt! An All-American Farm Editor Gives Low Down on His Job.” The Quill, April 1928. (MS 61, box 1, folder 3)

Ray Anderson, former farmer, was best known for his work as a journalist. From 1927-1944 he served as Farm Editor for the Cedar Rapids Gazette. His regular columns included “Fence Drift: Caught in the Woven Wire” (observational poetry) and “SHUCKS! Let’s Talk It Over” (news and observations). In 1944 he left the Gazette to join the staff of Farm Journal as an Associate Editor. Calling Anderson “America’s greatest farm reporter,”  Farm Journal Editor Carroll P. Streeter,  described Anderson as possessing the “liveliest reportorial curiosity I have ever known. Nothing pleases him so much as striking out to go new places, see new things, meet new people, encounter new ideas. He will never outgrow this if he lives to be 100.” (MS 61, box 1, folder 11).

Sunshine, at last.
In abundance.
* * *
Puts color in the corn.
And happy in the heart of the farmer.
* * *
‘Twas ever so, in Iowa.
Gloom never aught but temporary.
* * *
Soil, rain, sunshine, the man on the acres.
Reasons why we live in the center of the world.

– Fence Drift: Caught in the Woven Wire.
Undated. (MS 61, box 1, folder 4)

Aside from the Ray Anderson Papers (MS 61 Finding Aid), we have a number of manuscript collections pertaining to agricultural journalism. Here is a sampling of them:

As always, we are happy to help you with your research. Give us a call or email!

Thanksgiving Special: Raising Turkeys in the 1940s

Thanksgiving day is over, but a weekend full of leftovers is ahead! While you’re trying to figure out what to do with all of that leftover turkey, why not learn a little about how that bulky bird was raised? Or, rather, how that bird would have been raised a couple of generations ago.

Bronze turkeys. U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, pages 2 and 3; MS 67, Box 13, Folder 8

While commercially-produced turkeys today are Broad Breasted Whites, 70 years ago Bronze was the breed (and color) of choice. In fact, my grandfather started out raising Bronze turkeys, but both my father and my brother raise Broad Breasted White. Of course, some  smaller operations today raise heritage turkeys, including the White Holland (an ancestor of today’s widely raised Broad Breasted White), Narragansett, and Bourbon Red.

Let’s say you want to be an old-fashioned turkey farmer. Well, there are few things you need to know: sanitation and disease prevention, equipment, how to care for baby turkeys, and how to feed them until market age.

Sanitation and Disease Prevention

Sanitation and disease prevention were just as important in the old days as it is today. The USDA Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, 1940, provides some guidelines and common practices regarding this issue. It was incredibly important that farms had some sort of sanitation system in place. These included making sure the range had clean soil, feeding birds from feeders that couldn’t be contaminated by their droppings, and always keeping the buildings sanitary. When it came to feed, sanitation of containers was especially important when milk was used (yes, turkeys used to be fed milk). Of utmost importance was keeping turkeys separate from chickens and any other poultry – diseases are easily spread from poultry species to poultry species (this includes pet birds)!

Swift’s Turkey Feeding and Management Guide, undated but from the pre-Broad Breasted White era, provides some additional guidelines. These include availability of fresh, clean water at all times, cleaning and disinfecting brooder houses before new poults arrive, regular disinfecting of equipment, and not allowing visitors to enter turkey buildings or walk on the range, as diseases are easily spread between flocks. These practices are generally still in place today.

Now that you know how to keep your birds healthy, you need to know what equipment is needed.

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers' Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, page 33; MS 67, Box 13, Folder 8

Shelter. U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, page 33; MS 67, Box 13, Folder 8


Swift’s Turkey Feeding and Management Guide  recommends equipment to be used to raise 1,000 turkeys – a number that pales in comparison to today’s 10,000+ on turkey farms. Poults (the proper term for baby turkeys, not “chicks” like this guide calls them) were commonly raised both in brooder houses – and still are today, although the buildings are much larger – and on the range (outdoors).

Equipment suggested in the guide include 4-foot long feeders, so that poults always have access to feed, 3-gallon poult-sized fountains for water, larger 6-foot long feeders for when the turkeys get a little bigger, 4 stoves designed for 500 poults each; these were used to keep the turkeys warm. Stoves are still used today, suspended in the air so they hover above the poults, like a low-hanging, warm roof. Brooder houses at the time were recommended to be 10×12 feet or so, with equal size sun porches for fresh air. For the range, 6-foot long feeders were recommended and 4-foot long watering troughs, rather than fountains. Also needed on range were shelters, fencing to keep turkeys contained, and shade.

With all of these set in place, you are now ready to add turkeys to your old-fashioned turkey farm!

Brooder house with sun porch. U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, page 21; MS 67, Box 13, Folder 8

New Poults

At this point the question is, how do you raise baby turkeys on a 1940s farm? The USDA Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising tells us how to get started. First of all, the litter (stuff that’s put on the ground in turkey buildings) was supposed to be sand or gravel for the first two or three weeks, and then switched over to straw or hay. Today, sawdust is used throughout the turkeys’ lifespans.

Knowing when to start feeding your poults is also important on your 1940s turkey farm, since they have probably hatched on your farm. In 1940, leaving poults in a darkened incubator for 12-24 hours and feeding them as soon as they were moved to the brooder house was becoming the general practice. It also thought to be better than waiting for up to 72 hours, which was sometimes done.

I know you’re thinking, “Great, but when it comes time to feed them, what do I actually feed them?” Let’s take a look, shall we?

U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers' Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, page 30; MS 67, Box 13, Folder 8

Turkey feeder. U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, page 30; MS 67, Box 13, Folder 8


The USDA Farmer’s Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising comes to the rescue again, providing guidelines and recipes on feeding your turkeys. First and foremost, feed was to be available to turkeys at all times, from hatching to market.

The first feed poults were given was to be made up of green feed (finely chopped, tender) and dry starting mash (recipes to follow). Ground or crumbled hard-boiled eggs could be added to the mixture, and milk – “if not too high priced” – could be kept in front of them in easily cleaned containers, such as crockery, tin, wooden or granite.

For the first six to eight weeks, a well-balanced, all-mash ration was considered the simplest and most practical way to go. Commercial mashes were available, but they could be made at home as well. The following is one of two mashes that could be prepared, and the one the USDA recommended and fed without liquid milk:

Starting Mash No. 1:

  • Ground yellow corn (17 parts by weight*),
  • pulvarized whole oats (15),
  • 50-55% protein meat scrap (12),
  • Wheat bran (12),
  • wheat middlings or shorts (12),
  • dried milk (10),
  • alfalfa leaf meal (10),
  • 60% protein fish meal (10),
  • cod-liver oil (1.5),
  • fine sifted salt (.5)

* parts by weight add up to 100

After those six to eight weeks, up until market, the feed changed. It could included mash and whole grain or liquid milk and whole grain supplemented with insects and green feed. However, it was better to supply sufficient protein and minerals in the mash, as that would help with regular growth. The USDA guide provides four different growing mash recipes, but the main differences from the starting mash listed above include the omission of cod-liver oil, different amounts of each ingredient, and in some cases the addition of steamed bonemeal and ground oystershell or limestone.

With all this information (and much more thorough research conducted by yourself), you should be ready to run your own 1940s-era turkey farm! Or, maybe you just know a bit more about the history of turkey farming. That’s fine too.

Bronze turkeys on range. U.S. Department of Agriculture Farmers’ Bulletin No. 1409: Turkey Raising, cover photo; MS 67, Box 13, Folder 8

More Information

For more information on raising turkeys and other poultry-related information – including how turkeys were prepared for market and how they were selected for breeding, see the Iowa Poultry Association Records, MS 67. We also have a book on the farm struggles of one man in the 1930s, including entries on turkey farming: Years of Struggle: The Farm Diary of Elmer G. Powers. Want to know how your turkey is raised today? Read this blog post (full disclosure: written by my sister-in-law) that provides a farmer’s perspective. The  Iowa Turkey Federation is also a great resource – plus, they have lots of turkey recipes on their website, in case you haven’t figured out how to deal with all those leftovers yet.

CyPix: Autumn on the Farm

Today marks the first full day of autumn – the equinox actually occurred last night. Some may be sad to see summer go, but I for one am more than ready for fall weather and all of the wonderful things that go along with it (pumpkin everything comes to mind). One of autumn’s most notable sights here in Iowa is that of combines plowing through golden fields of corn and soybeans.

Harvest is a busy time for farmers, full of long days and short nights. It’s also dangerous, with lots of large machinery and massive amounts of grain to work with. As it happens, this first week of autumn is also National Farm Safety and Health Week! Farm safety is an important issue to farmers and their families, and we farm kids had it instilled in us at a young age. Below is a great example of a child doing something he shouldn’t.

A child climbs up a crop conveyor belt that leads into the corn crib on the Irving Sorenson family farm - an example of what not to do during harvest time, 1953, RS 9/7/F.

A child climbs up a crop conveyor belt that leads into the corn crib on the Irving Sorenson family farm in Kelley, Iowa – an example of what not to do during harvest time, 1953, RS 9/7/F.

This and four other photos taken on the Irving Sorenson farm are mounted on a card labeled “Farm Safety,” so these photos were presumably used for farm safety education. The Sorenson farm photos are available on our Flickr page. We have several collections regarding farm safety, including the Norval J. Wardle Papers, the Wesley Fisher Buchele Papers, the Dale O. Hull Papers, the Iowa Farm Safety Council Records, and the Herbert Plambeck Papers. For more information, search through our website or ask us about our other holdings!

Greetings from a recent addition!

Salutations blog-readers!

I’m Hillary H., the new Silos and Smokestacks intern working in the ISU Special Collections. I’m here for the summer from the School of Library and Information Science at UNC-Chapel Hill where I’m working on my MS in Library Science (concentration in  Archives and Records Management). I’ve worked with rare books previously, and have several years experience in the used book business.

In my work here, I’ll be putting together an online collection about the early Extension work in Iowa. It will have a special emphasis on the agricultural work done by the Extension Service and the impact it had on the lives of Iowa’s farmers.

Lots of progress has been made already. Thus far I’ve gone through nearly one hundred folders of material, and not only have I found dozens of pieces that have potential to make it into the digital collection, I have also found several references I never anticipated seeing anywhere outside of my hometown. For instance, Walter Hines Page was a name I’d only ever seen in relation to my high school (it’s named after him), but I recently found a few comments about Page and comments about one of the national committees he had served on. It is definitely not what I had expected to find in Iowa, but it’s interesting nonetheless.

In addition to the aforementioned findings, there has already been some preliminary designing of the website, and conservation work is set to begin in the next day or so.

Expect another update from me soon!

Hillary H.


CyPix: A Steam Powered Tractor

Fans of steampunk and fans of tractors should find this interesting. Below is a photo of a small Case tractor with a steam engine and steel wheels. I, for one, never knew steam powered tractors existed until I came upon photos of them on our Flickr site! Case made these tractors from 1869-1924, according to this informational pamphlet. Instead of the red body we know today, Case’s early steam tractors were black with red on the wheels.


A small Case tractor with steel wheels, undated

Small  steam powered Case tractor with steel wheels, undated. RS 9/7


For more information on tractors and other farm machinery, check out our guide on Agricultural Collections – Engineering and Technology. Any of our other agricultural collections may be of use as well, so feel free to take a look at our other agriculture-related subject guides and our collections from the Department of Agriculture and Biosystems Engineering. We also have a couple of collections involving steam engines, such as the Warren H. Meeker Papers, RS 11/10/15, and the Howard Healy Steam Traction Engines Collection, MS 442, the finding aid of which is available in the department.