California Agriculture in the Classroom

Growing a Nation: Into a New Millennium

Grade Level(s)

9 - 12

Estimated Time

90 minutes


Students will understand the significant events throughout American agricultural history that have changed American society. Students will recognize the importance of labor in agriculture and see how the implementation of technology in agriculture increased agricultural production.


Essential Files (maps, charts, pictures, or documents)

Essential Links


sustainable agriculture: a system that can indefinitely sustain itself without degrading the land, the environment or the people

Did you know? (Ag Facts)

Background - Agricultural Connections

Growing a Nation uses instructional design and innovative technology to bring depth and meaning to historical events. The program and lesson plans merge seamlessly with existing American history textbooks and high school history curricula. 

Introduction to Growing a Nation:

Our country has witnessed sweeping changes—from the untamed wild times of Buffalo Bill to the technological era of Bill Gates—but food has never lost its central role in our lives. Food not only sustains life but also enriches us in many ways. It warms us on cold, dreary days, entices us with its many aromas, and provides endless variety to the everyday world. Food is also woven into the fabric of our Nation, our culture, our institutions, and our families. Food is on the scene when we celebrate and when we mourn. We use it for camaraderie, as a gift, and as a reward (and sometimes as a crutch).

We are all aware of how food has changed. At the turn of the 20th century, home cooking and canning were fixtures of life in America. Lard, seasonal vegetables, potatoes, and fresh meats were the staples of our diet. And 40 percent of Americans lived on farms. Today, convenience foods and dining out are common. Ethnic diversity has influenced our tastes and the variety of foods available. Technology and trade allow us to enjoy most foods all year round. And less than 2 percent of the population grows our food, while 9 percent are involved in the food system in some way—in processing, wholesaling, retailing, service, marketing, and inspection.

What Americans often forget, however, is the remarkable system that delivers to us the most abundant, reasonably priced, and safest food in the world. The American food system—from the farmer to the consumer—is a series of interconnected parts. The farmer produces the food, the processors work their magic, and the wholesalers and retailers deliver the products to consumers, whose choices send market signals back through the system. Every piece fits every other piece, notwithstanding an occasional gap and pinch.

At the end of the day, it is safe to say the U.S. food system has done a remarkable job of using technology and inventiveness to its advantage and ultimately to the benefit of the consumer. We get the foods we want, when we want them, in the form we want them, all at affordable prices. Thanks to this system, Americans spend less of their income on food than do consumers anywhere else in the world.

Despite the dramatic evolution of the American food system, there are some constants in our ever-changing world. Americans will always love food. The American food system will continue to adapt, grow, and provide us with the products we desire.

(James R. Blaylock, Associate Director, Food and Rural Economics Division, ERS, Amber Waves, June 2003)

The “conservation movement” promoted by Teddy Roosevelt, Jon Muir (naturalist, preservationist), and Gifford Pinchot (conservationist, head of U.S. Forest Service) in the early 20th Century gave way to the “environmental movement” punctuated by Rachel Carson in the 1960s and continues on through environmental activism of the 21st Century. Evaluating the effectiveness of presidential administrations and how they have addressed social and environmental issues is at the core of educational history standards. In voting for a president, Americans learn about the candidate’s environmental positions and may need to sort through environmental “facts” and “opinions.” Teddy Roosevelt condemned the view that America’s resources were endless and made conservation a primary concern. Roosevelt, Pinchot and most Progressives believed in using experts and scientific and technical information to solve problems. For Roosevelt conservation meant that some wilderness area would be preserved while others would be developed for the common good. Carson’s book resulted in the Water Quality Act of 1965. President Johnson said that “There is no excuse. . .for chemical companies and oil refineries using our major rivers as pipelines for toxic wastes.” In 1970, President Nixon consolidated 15 existing federal pollution programs into the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA). In the 1980s, the environmental movement began to struggle with the balance between the environment, jobs, and progress. Activity 2 uses critical thinking to help students examine an issue, risks, and how decisions are made. Activity 3 focuses on U.S. production, exports, and imports as they relate to international trade and economic trends. Students will analyze how issues such as national security, sovereignty, overseas competition, and environmental concerns affect the U.S. economy.

Sustainable agricultural practices seek to sustain farmers, resources and communities by promoting farming practices and methods that are profitable, environmentally sound and good for communities. Sustainable agriculture fits into and complements modern agriculture. It rewards the true values of producers and their products. It draws and learns from organic farming. It works on farms and ranches large and small, harnessing new technologies and renewing the best practices of the past.

Sustainable agriculture is:

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Have a class discussion using the following questions. Use this discussion to assess the prior knowledge of your students and to introduce them to the lesson.
    • Does America need to farm in the 21st Century?
    • Who supports the 2% who grow products on farms and then ensure a finished product arrives as food, clothes, shelter, or energy? (Another 9% of the population in the role of scientists, specialists, processors, business professionals, etc.)
    • Who will be the next generation of farmers, agricultural scientists and agricultural educators?
    • What is sovereignty as it relates to America's food and energy supplies?


Activity 1:

  1. Using a classroom projector or a computer lab, review the Growing a Nation multimedia presentation. (Into a New Millennium section)
  2. After students view selected slides, assign each student or group of students an Embedded Resource Card and ask them to be prepared to answer the Embedded Resource questions either by direct response or by using one of the Teaching and Learning Strategies. You may want to assign a particular strategy or cut the strategies into strips and ask each student to pick one or two. If the student or group of students is allowed to pick two, ask them to choose the learning strategy they prefer and put the other one back. The embedded resources that pop up on each Growing a Nation screen are designed to be adaptable to a variety of teaching strategies and flexible for diverse learning styles. Each slide contains five or six embedded resources that detail events in American history that can be explored for a greater understanding of the time period or historical cause and effect relationships. Each embedded resource asks higher order questions to not only increase student knowledge but to increase their comprehension to the level of application, analysis, synthesis and evaluation (Bloom’s Taxonomy of educational objectives).
  3. The Teaching and Learning Strategies can be applied to nearly all the embedded resources in addition to students answering the embedded resource questions.

Activity 2: Should this Product be Banned?

Relate the following to the class:

A high school freshman doing a science project asked 50 people if they would sign a petition demanding strict control or total elimination of the chemical “dihydrogen monoxide” because it:

Forty-three of the people surveyed said they would sign the petition, six were undecided, and one said “no.” Yet, if the student had called di-hydrogen monoxide by its common name (water), the results would have been a unanimous “no.”

Perception and context are critical to good judgment. Most issues require an examination of validity, context, and trade-offs. Review with students the following:


  1. Was the research conducted properly and are the conclusions easy to understand?
  2. Is the disclosed information true?
  3. Has the research been replicated?
  4. Has the research been published and peer-reviewed?


  1. How is this data used?
  2. Is the whole picture being provided?
  3. What other factors or variables were left out of the research?


Are the solutions worse than the problem?

We get in our cars knowing there is a risk that we might be involved in an accident. We ingest tons of chemicals in the form of prescription drugs. Society often looks for a safety guarantee when, in fact, nothing we do is risk-free. We can do certain things to minimize risks. We can wear seat belts and drive defensively. We can take medicine only when we absolutely need it. But, even with these measures, we realize that nothing is 100% safe.

Risk is the chance of injury, damage, or loss; the degree or probability of loss; the act of exposing oneself to a risk or taking a chance. Scientists and government officials usually address risk in terms of probability for populations, not individuals. The scientific classification for risk may range from low to high to absolute. However, individuals often associate the word “risk” with “danger” instead of “probability”.

As in other sectors, the science-based processes of risk assessment and management help determine reasonable agricultural and environmental risk levels. These processes measure and characterize risk, estimate the probability of occurrence, and predict the nature and magnitude of potential adverse effects. For example, scientists may assess various risk factors from pesticide residues in or on the foods people buy and develop management strategies to control residues. Risk managers integrate social, economic, and political factors into risk assessment results.

Ask students to work in small groups to identify the product in question and to do a risk/benefit analysis to reach a reasonable conclusion about whether the product should be banned.

The product:

Ask each group to discuss its analytical process and conclusion with the entire class.

The product referred to is an automobile, and its risks are an acceptable part of American life because individuals believe they have control over the risks and because there often is not an acceptable alternative to the automobile. This is the type of critical thinking that needs to be used when looking at all kinds of issues.

Activity 3: International Trade, Interdependence, & Sovereignty

  1. Ask the students if they or their families have ever purchased a product made in a different country.
  2. Encourage discussion by mentioning the brand names of various products such as Volkswagen (Germany), Sony (Japan), Toyota (Japan), Nintendo (Japan), Panasonic (Japan), Hyundai (South Korea), Adidas (Taiwan), Nokia (Finland), Barilla (pasta, Italy), Nestlé (Switzerland).
  3. Ask students to name American brand names; examples include: Levi’s, Microsoft, Google, McDonald’s, Heinz, Coca-Cola, Starbucks, Ford, and many more. Although these companies and their associated brand names are owned or operated in a particular country, each has substantial interest in the economy of one another. The products they produce may also require raw ingredients or inputs from each other or other countries around the globe. This is what is meant by the “global market” or “globalization.”
  4. As a homework assignment, ask each student to complete the “Household Survey Activity Sheet.”
  5. When the class has completed the survey, make a chart on the whiteboard or overhead giving names of the countries and names of the brands.
  6. Ask the students to think about the results of the survey. Were they surprised by the number of products they found in their homes from other countries?
  7. Share the overheads “Where Your Food Dollar Goes,” “American Agriculture’s Share of World Production,” “What We Sell to the World. . . What We Buy from Other Nations,” and “Our Top Foreign Markets.”
  8. Use the World Map transparency and colored markers to indicate from what countries or states their families have products. Connect the dots from the countries or states to the state where the students reside. Do the students see any trends? Electronics, automobiles, food? Discuss with students that some countries specialize in producing goods at a price Americans are willing to pay. The U.S. government has trade agreements with many countries, but not with all. The World Trade Organization (WTO) is an international, multilateral organization which sets the rules for the global trading system and resolves disputes between its member states, all of whom are signatories to its approximately 30 agreements.
  9. As closure for this activity, ask students to create a concept map selecting one household item on their survey and then make the connections that product has to other resources, businesses, and careers. Can the student trace the product back to the farm or another natural resource such as oil (plastic)? Does the product’s principle ingredient come from another country? You may want students to identify the location where the connections on their concept webs occur.
  10. Finally, as a class, discuss again the questions noted in the Motivator/Interest Approach section of this lesson.

We welcome your feedback! Please take a minute to tell us how to make this lesson better or to give us a few gold stars!


Suggested Companion Resources


Growing a Nation was funded by USDA CSREES cooperative agreement #2004-38840-01819 and developed cooperatively by: USDA, Utah State University Extension, and LetterPress Software, Inc.

Special Thanks to:


Debra Spielmaker

Organization Affiliation

National Agriculture in the Classroom