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Farming in the 1920s

This iconic barn was built by Henry Borlaug just before the family moved to the property (about 1922). It housed milk cows and three work horses used for farming.

Best Friends

When the Henry Borlaug family moved to this farm in 1922, farming was still primitive in nature and much of what was raised went to feeding the family and the farm animals. Norm's childhood playmate was one of the three workhorses, Bob, the youngest. Bob and Norm shared the same birthday, March 25, 1914.

"Our friendship was mutual; with a swoop of his nose Bob would nudge me like some co-conspirator hell bent on mischief. He didn't do that with anone else, and how could I resist? We enjoyed many adventures together. We'd take excursions into the woods, to the fishing hole on the Little Turkey River; and we often took off together to see the relatives down the road." Norman Borlaug

Caring for horses required a great deal of labor. It also involved losing precious land. At least half the farm's acreage was devoted to growing hay and oats for the three horses and scores of cattle and calves. That's why a 100 acre farm was reduced to less than half for producing people food.

(from Vietmeyer, Noel. Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug, Bracing Books., Lorton, VA, 2011.)


Corn Harvest       

In Norm's day all corn was picked by hand. Norm and his father began in October and hoped to be done by Thanksgiving!


  • They walked row after row picking the the corn while simultaneously removing the husks as well.

  • An average acre contains 12,00 plants

  • An average 40 acre farm like the Borlaugs meant they would be picking half a million ears of corn before they were finished!

  • They wore a husking glove and had a short hook attached to one of the palms to tear open the husk.

  • After the corn cob was free it was launched into a wagon pulled by the horses 


(from Vietmeyer, Noel. Our Daily Bread: The Essential Norman Borlaug, Bracing Books., Lorton, VA, 2011.)


A Time of Change

Things were changing rapidly for farmers during Norm's youth. Farmers were moving to machinery which eliminated much of the drudgery of farming and put more land into production. They also were embracing hybrid seeds which increased the number of bushels plants could yield.

First Tractor: (1929) “Relief from endless drudgery equated to emancipation from servitude. Country kids like me finally could allow our heart’s desire. And that amounted to the ultimate freedom.” - Led to the invention of a corn picker that levitated the time and pain usually associated with picking corn. (Vietmeyer p.97)

Smith-Hughes Vocational Agriculture Program: A federal subsidy aimed at training boys to run farms, started by Congress in 1917. This exposed Norm to the way plants grow, the nature of soils, and the true wonders of corn. September of 1929 (Sophomore Year) Harry Schroder came to Cresco high to be the new Vo-Ag instructor. Ran a planting trial – the class prepared small plots of soil. Some of them received a dose of fertilizer and others did not. The corn planted in those plots reached the equivalent of 50 bushels per acre. (Norm’s family usually only got 25). This was a defining moment for the students. The soil in their area was malnourished. – According to the Vo-Ag Act of Congress, anyone taking the courses were to return home to the farm and discontinue formal education. (Vietmeyer p.84)

Threshing Oats: (Separating the ripened oat grain from the straw.) This was a community affair. The community had a large threshing circle that included twenty to thirty farmers. A steam engine powered the separator. – Later Norm’s Uncle Ned owned a smaller threshing machine powered by a Fordson tractor. With this machine, Norm’s job was to operate the grain elevator, powered by a one-cylinder Fairbanks Morse gasoline engine, which conveyed the oats into the farmer’s grain bin. (Hesser p.10)  

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