In the 1980s rural Iowan farmers experienced an unexpected economic disaster that led to the destruction of many of those whose lives depended on agricultural income and farm gains. The crisis affected many central Iowan families and left a long-lasting effect on the area and its makeup. Various policies introduced by the government during the 1970s and the increasing automation of agricultural work were the main factors that led to the farm crisis and its wreckage. Professor Jake Mitchell Geller of Iowa State University writes that “the combination of low farm prices, low farm income, and slumping land values has created a serious debt problem in agriculture” (1986).  


It was reported that “In 1983, seven insured commercial agricultural banks failed; in 1984 and 1985, the figure rose to thirty-two and sixty-eight, respectively” (Calomiris, 1986). This “debt problem” that Geller mentions influenced people to either sell small family farms and move away, or continue living in a state of poverty. Another trend that is noticed as a result of the farm crisis is what is called a brain drain. This is a phenomenon that occurs when younger and more educated people leave an area in search of better jobs and a better life. It can often be noticed in farm families, as the children go farther away to attend college, rarely to come back and live in the town in which they were born and raised. While this leads to the break-down of family farms, it also contributes to a significant decrease in population, specifically a younger, working population.


Cartoon take on “American Gothic” depicting the effects of the farm crisis


With a failing economy and no people to fill jobs, many would wonder how any rural Iowan town could survive. Some would be surprised to know that the main solution to the problem actually comes from minorities that migrate to the area, whether they be U.S citizens or not. It is seen time and time again that many central Iowan communities are held up by the work done by minorities in the area. Iowa is often seen as “whitest states in the nation,” but it is essential to understand how recent migration to the state by minorities has impacted the economies of many of Iowa’s farm towns that were destined for failure after the farm crisis (Des Moines Register 1999).

Minority population change in Iowa by county


Iowa Population by urban area in recent years

Although the farm crisis occurred in the mid-’80s, its effects are still seen to this day. This mass migration of minorities continued well into the ’90s, as a new report written in 1999 shows, “Iowa counties seeing the largest percentage growth in Hispanic populations during the 1990s are in central Iowa” (Des Moines Register 1999). This can easily be seen in places like Marshalltown, Iowa , where there is a rising Hispanic population upheld by a meat packing plant in the area. An article published by the Atlantic states, “[the] death of Small Town Iowa seemed imminent. That is until the Latino revolution hit the state” (2014).  This sentiment should not be ignored, as Iowa changes and adapts more in the future.