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Frequent Visitor

Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

Hello, non-farmer here looking for a bit of information. If there is someone around and willing to help that was in (or near) Iowa in the 80s, that would be absolutely wonderful.

I'm attempting to write a novel set loosely in Iowa in the 1980s. Quite a few liberties are going to be taken for various reasons, but I would really like to get a better understanding of what things were actually like before I deviate and invent. A lot of things I'd like to know will be kind of generic and mundane: some basics with corn/bean farming, and general life/community at the time. I've already done a bit of research on my own, but there is a definite lack of information on the web. Finding out before the early 2000s and outside August - November is difficult.

I've got a quick little questionnaire written up, which filling out alone would be a big help. I'll probably end up with other questions based off of that and other things that might pop up while writing, so if you'd be up for some further questioning, that would be even better. Talking over email would probably be better, but I'm willing to stick to the forum if you want. Email:



9 Replies
BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

I started farming in the early 80`s and would be glad to answer any questions you might have.   Well, it was the best of times and the worst of times..   Smiley Happy  If you had debt it wasn`t so good as there were times that interest was 20%, there isn`t alot of legal things that you can do to service that kind of debt.


Farms were smaller and probably most still had livestock, the small farrow to finish hog farmer was still in their prime.  Hog buying stations were still about 10 miles a part, you`d call up about three of them and get your best price and sometimes there`d be a dozen bumper hitch trailers behind pickups, each with about 15hd.  Most counties still had a couple sale barns that auctioned cattle hogs and sheep.


This was before cell phones, internet, most farms had a tv with the 4 channels, at noon they gave market and farm news.  Iowa State would give progress reports about percentage of 2nd cutting of hay and crops cultivated the second time.  Neighbors would stop in about everyday to talk, some families would drop by for a visit after supper.


Every town had a movie theater and that was entertainment.  Bars still had dancing, to pick up women you never admited that you were a farmer, most were farmgirls and their fathers must`ve warned them that farming was no kind of life given the struggles at that time...yet history would show that was one of the few golden opportunities to`ve started actually cashflowed for a few short years there.


A couple documentaries I would suggest to get the creative juices flowing are The Farmer`s Wife and Troublesome Creek. 


and the video Rain on the Scarecrow  



Here`s a good movie race Against the Harvest 


and Miles from Home

Frequent Visitor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

Excellent. I've been trying to get a hold of the Farmer's Wife, that's the only one on your list I'd turned up myself, but haven't found a copy yet. I'll defnitely see if I can look up the others you suggested. The best I've come across for actual farm life and issues is KSMQ's "Farm Connections" from Minnesota, but that is all more modern and varies a lot. I even resorted to rewatching field of dreams for all the good it did. 😛 


I've found a couple 20 minutes documentaries from local archives; one was mostly useless, but the other was the best source for period info I'd found to date. Of course I forgot to bookmark it and can't find it again. I have been searching local channel youtube stuff, but with little luck. A lot of what is out there is just too broad and doesn't say anything more than "banks failed and people were in debt" despite being fairly long.


Here is the list of questions I've come up with so far, there is a pretty good chunk. Feel free to skip questions for whatever reasons.


About how many acres might an average farmer have had? Number of fields? Size of the fields?

What were the typical outbuildings on a homestead, and were they called by nicknames and slang terms?

What common crop rotation was being practiced if any? Was it like modern 2yr Soybean/Corn? How about tilling?

Was work flow at harvest generally the same as today? Loosely: Estimate yield, plan from estimate, harvest--taking some to an elevator and keeping some in on-site bins? Is it the same for corn and beans?

Would you please give a brief run down of work flow for the year in your own words, and about the time important actions occur. For example: yield estimates in mid-August, harvest October/November. Important doesn’t have to mean big or flashy.

Was it common to have a couple cows, pigs, or chickens even for arable farmers? Why were they kept? (profit diversity, 4h/show, etc) For that matter, was it as common to be as non-diversified as it seems farmers are today?

Auctions seem noteworthy and fairly common. Can you offer some generalities about the local auctions? They had to vary significantly, but perhaps they shared a lot, too.

Are there any other events like county fairs, farmer’s markets, or auctions that are perhaps common things to farmers but would be much less known outside the farm belt? A big example, though not exactly common, is probably the farm aid concerts.

What was the local sports scene like? Again, I’m aware this could vary wildly. Even just general observations about which sports were more popular (local and national) and how much of the community paid attention to them.

How about more common and mundane daily affairs, things you might not think twice about, but might be unusual or insightful to non-farmers? Things like upkeep, daily/weekly chores, errands around town, or things that make you glad to live and work on a rural farm.

Can you think of any slang terms and phrases that are or were used often around the farm but might be unknown outside the community? Especially things like equipment and common tasks. I am aware this could be quite a broad topic. I’m just looking for highlights and things that might be noteworthy.

Can you think of any unusual, non-person characters that might exist in a farming community, perhaps that would seem everyday to farmers but not to others? Large examples of this would be things like the Mississippi river to Tom Sawyer or the Empire State Building to a New Yorker, and smaller examples might be a big printing press at a newspaper or an uncommon lab animal to a scientist. Huge grain elevators are one.

Hopefully the questions have given a bit of insight about what I am looking for. Is there anything else you can think of that might help to add authenticity and life into the background of a story taking place loosely in 80s era Iowa?

BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

In the 80`s i`d say the average Iowa farm was about 500 acres, probably owned a 240 and maybe rented a couple farms. 


Farms still had the sterotypical gambrel roof barns and instead of milking they might`ve been remodeled to farrow hogs. In the 70`s alot of Morton machine sheds were put up.  Hogs may have been finished in a "Cargill type" sloped roof building with a concrete pad out front.  Maybe 20 to 40 cows were kept and pastured on rough ground.  A few innovators had confinement hog opperations and on the other side "A frame" single hog huts or Portahuts were used to pasture farrow hogs, sows farrowed in spring and hogs raised on pasture and marketed in the fall. Some had quanset bldgs for grain or machinery storage.  Old "government bins" were still in use about 3200 bushel size, there again some innovators had 10-20,000 bushel bins and a grain leg.


Some farmers raised contious corn, most rotated corn and beans, hay, pasture and oats would also be in the mix.   Tile wasn`t as prolific as nowadays, the cement and clay tile was still good and that "new fangled plastic pipe" still wasn`t trusted by some.


There wasn`t really any "grain carts" John Deere made a 400 bushel model  🙂   What was typical there would be a couple 200 bu gravity wagons hooked together at the end rows or a straight truck with a 300 bu box and the combine would unload at the end rows.  Alot of grain went to town in the fall, long lines were common.


We had alot of chores all winter, it took the entire day, February sheep shearing, sprind lambing, cows calving and hogs farrowing, May planting. And you`d jump right into first cutting of hay and cultivating the week old corn, then right to the beans all the while baling that first hay of the season.   Spraying and cultivating the second time and hopefully laying the crop by in time for the 4th of July parade, then getting going on the 2nd crop of hay and windrowing oats.  By August you`d combine oats bale straw and get ready for September farrowing.  October bean combining and picking corn and if you were lucky you`d finish on thought you did good.  Hopefully inbetween you`d get your fall plowing done before freeze up "A bad job of plowing in the fall is better than a good one in the spring!".   Then winter would turn up the hours spent on chores.


Auctions..we call them "sales" were very common in the 80`s, unfortunately many had a sad story behind them.  Machinery was very cheap, there was too much for sale to the small amount of farmers with the money to buy.  Consignment sales were common before planting and harvest, farmers would sell extra augers duals anything for more "cashflow".  I went to alot of sales, I needed machinery of all types then and there were a group of regulars that my Dad and I knew by nicknames, there was "the buck tooth guy"  "the pipe smoking guy"  "the crooked neck guy" "the Amish guy"..the Amish guy wasn`t Amish, he just had a Amish beard I saw him somewhere the other day 🙂  "Pearly whites" he always smiled with alot of teeth.  All those guys were salt of the earth and would help load or hook up machinery and always good for gosip.



County fairs and the state fair were and still are a big part of farming.  Local basketball and football games were always of interest.  Around here the Twins in the world series in the late 80`s and Vikings... and the Hawkeyes in Rose Bowl.   One farmer out by Bode Iowa went kind of nuts and let his cattle starve while their family went to the Rose Bowl.


Around here, we call a field cultivator a "digger" we call end rows 'end rows" but some foreigners say "point rows"  We say "pick corn" but like those in Indiana say "shell".  To me the noon meal will always be "dinner" and supper is the evening meal..and "lunch" is what you have at 10am and 4pm 🙂   We call pickups "pickups..not "trucks", that`s what city slickers say.


There were characters in the community, the was a guy that was a junk dealer that would come around and sell anything, it might be a tractor or a pontoon boat..he never got anywhere but he liked to deal and trade.  One guy also would pester us he had a car dealers license and go to car auctions, he also did high up  work like church steeples, winmills and grain silos...absolutely no fear of heights. He would buy wooden ladders on sales and cobble them up making them longer with 2x4s, the damned fool fell many times but he was too dumb to be scared.  His arm was broken so many times it was crooked...He said "if you fall stay with the ladder!" Smiley Very Happy     But I could look at the ashtray and by the brand of cigarettes, I could tell what clown had visited the folks..Pall Mall was one guy and rolled his own was another......   🙂  Very good times then

Red Steele
Veteran Advisor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

Not sure what type of plot you are going with on your book, but if you attempting to write about the 

underside of the 80's, the debt and destruction, you might want to get a copy of Final Harvest, an

American Tragedy.


Another movie, besides the ones that BA mentioned, and another book that it is based off of, is

called A Thousand Acres, by Jane Smiley.


Bridges of Madison County is set in an Iowa community, but I am not certain of the date. 


FInal Harvest is a cautionary tale of what can happen when you push a man too far. Donald Trump

is feeding on the same sort of rage and despair among blue collar workers in America today. 

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

BA, you have a very fine flare for writing and remembering the last golden days of farming. You sure bring back warm memories for me. 


You should seriously think about writing down your memories of farming with your Dad and growing up in North Iowa. If you publish it, I would be first in line to buy a book. At the very least, it would be cherished by your kids and future grandkids. 🙂

Senior Contributor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

About the underside of farming in the 80ies...........

thisof course is from an Ontario experience but a number of farmers quit farming in that time period, not because they wante to but because a lender told them to.

This resulted in farm auctions and there were a few where protesting farmers took over and forced sales of machinery for a pittannce of its value.

They did this by not allowing a genuine buyer to bid and then only bidding pennies when the auctioneer tried to sell it.


There were some auctions called 'penny auctions' where they took over enough that they drove machinery away after paying a few pennies or a dollar for it wich of course led to some court actions and penalties for some of the instigators.


In this are there was also land that could not be rented, no one wanted to farm it or could afford to farm it with the high interest rates

I do know of land that was given to a farmer to crop just to keep the weeds down because on one would pay anything to rent it.


These may not hold true in Iowa for your story but was happening not too far away at this time.

BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

Thank you Craig.  I was in my teens and 20`s in the 80`s ..I knew everything, didn`t have any aches and pains, I was so smart and everyone around me was so stupid, even my Dad..but the older I get the more i wonder how in the world my folks put up with such an arrogant ass 🙂   But I just loved the 80`s and knew at some point the party would be over so I just cherished every moment and took it all in.


Now reality has hit, the characters, the clowns that WWII generation that was patient with me, they are all gone now.  Kids don`t play with firecrackers anymore, they play video games.  My Grandfather would tell kids war stories and about mermaids and if they held their breath that a mosquito couldn`t leave your arm and if you threw salt on a bird`s tail you could catch them..all with a straight face.  The 1980`s still had enough of the politically incorrect people in the population, that the world was still fun   🙂

BA Deere
Honored Advisor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

I heard stories of "penny auctions" from the 1930`s, there were neighborhoods that were kind of rough then.  Dillinger robbed the Mason City bank and one farmer told my Grandfather that "at least Dillinger had the guts to demand money and not beg the banker!". 


In the 80`s I think lenders were prepared for a penny auction in this area, I would see bankers with clipboards right there to make sure machinery brought a certain price.  Consignment sales gained popularity, because if machinery was hauled off a farmstead and combined in a sale 100 miles away, there would be less sympathy.  Of course there were hairy experiences for those with the unenviable task of hauling away the machinery. 

Frequent Visitor

Re: Research For Book (1980s corn/bean)

I apologize for just disappearing. Events are working against me at the moment. I wanted to at least hop back on and say thank you for the response so far. I will probably come back again after things have settled for me. I am already sure a bit of what has been provided went over my head, but I don't have the time to sort through it right now. Thanks again, talk to you guys and gals later.