California Agriculture in the Classroom

Growing a Nation: Prosperity and Challenges

Grade Level(s)

9 - 12

Estimated Time

60 minutes


Students will study the cause and effect relationship of many post-war advances that took place in our country.  They will discover how increases in science and technology changed agriculture leading to fewer farmers being necessary to provide food and fiber.


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


technology: the application of scientific knowledge for practical purposes

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)

An advance in technology (the application of scientific knowledge) has had monumental effects on the way we live today, taking us from hunters and gatherers to the space age and beyond. Agriculture was adopted over hunting and gathering as it more efficiently met our basic needs of food, clothing and shelter. Technological inventions and the understanding of more complex scientific knowledge catapulted western civilization and changed how we live today. The 1950s saw the complete mechanization of agriculture. In 1954 the number of tractors on farms exceeded the number of horses and mules for first time. Increased numbers of automobiles also impacted American society and left a mark on how Americans consume food, namely drive-in and drive-through restaurants and the resulting “fast food.” From the farm to the fork, “new” or “modern” conveniences such as refrigeration, food processing factories, and frozen foods–including TV dinners—changed the way Americans produced, prepared, and consumed food.

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. Explain to students that more than 90% of America’s population farmed 200 years ago. There were about 5 million Americans then. Today less than 2% of the American population works on farms; that’s about 5 million producers. Our population of about 300 million today has plenty of food.
  2. With that information, hold a class discussion and ask students to think about the following questions:
    • How has America fed itself and much of the world?
    • What has happened in the last 200 years to reduce farm labor and increase production?
    • How has agriculture made it possible for Americans to pursue their hopes and dreams?


Activity 1: Using Embedded Resources

  1. Using a projector or computer lab, view the Growing a Nation: Prosperity and Challenges multimedia program.
  2. After students view selected slides, assign each student or group of students an Embedded Resource Card (see Essential Files) and ask them to be prepared to answer the Embedded Resource questions either by direct response or by utilizing the attached Teaching and Learning Strategies summary. 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.
  3. 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). The Teaching and Learning Strategies in found in the Essential Files section of the lesson can be applied to nearly all the embedded resources in addition to students answering the embedded resource questions.

Activity 2: Timeline – Inventions in Farm Machinery and Technology

  1. As a class, review the “Farm Machinery and Technology” category of the Growing a Nation historical timeline, noting the production numbers and labor hours required to produce wheat and corn from 1830-2000.
  2. Together the class is going to create a cause and effect timeline. Use a strip of masking tape or crepe paper to create the timeline on one of the classroom walls. Add decade markers, spaced appropriately. Assign each student or group of students a decade between 1800 and 2000 from the “Farm Machinery and Technology” category. (There are 15 decades, so depending on your class size you may have 3 students to a group.)
  3. Each student or group of students should identify the events in their decade and evaluate the item as a cause or effect contributing to the increase in production or decrease in labor. Ask students to create a pamphlet by folding a sheet of 8-1/2" x 11" paper in half (lengthwise). On the top front page, students should glue or tape a picture from the Growing a Nation photo gallery or from other websites to identify the event, then below the picture write the title of the cause or effect event. These “pamphlets” will be used on the timeline. If they have more than one event in their assigned decade, they should create a separate sheet for each. On the inside, students should write down whether the event is a “cause” or an “effect” related to the increase in production or the decrease in labor. If the event is a cause, ask students to find the effect; if the event is an effect, ask students to find the cause, even if they have to look in different decades. Students may also look at other categories on the timeline or in their textbook to help them determine causes or effects. For example, were other things going on in the 1950s in the other categories (Economic cycles, Land, Crop and Livestock, Transportation, Trade, Life on the Farm Organizations, Agricultural Education and Extension, or Government Programs and Policy) that had a cause or effect relationship to the event? If so, they should identify them on the inside of the pamphlet. Once the pamphlets are completed, ask students to present their event and then paste the event onto the timeline in the appropriate decade.

Activity 3: Event or Invention Project

  1. Ask students to select an event or invention from the Growing a Nation timeline and then research the event or invention and create a PowerPoint slide show or advertisement flyer/poster about the event and present this project to the class. The presentation should include important statistics, highlights, graphs and or pictures. For example students could graph the number of people fed by farmers in 1940 (19), 1950 (27), 1960, (46), in 1970 (73), 1980 (115), 1990 (129), 2006 (144). The Farm Facts booklet noted in the Materials list would be useful for this activity.

Activity 4: Primary Source Analysis

  1. As a class, download or stream the following films from the Classroom Resources of the Growing a Nation website and compare and contrast what each Secretary of Agriculture is saying:
    • Secretary Benson Speaks, 1955 (4 minutes). Created by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Secretary of Agriculture, Ezra Taft Benson gives a New Year’s Day address concerning the future of agriculture.
    • Secretary Freeman Talks on Food and Fibers, 1968 (3 minutes). As part of President Johnson’s “War on Hunger,” Secretary of Agriculture Orville Freeman addresses the issue of hunger and raises questions about who America could or should feed and how hunger can be ended.
  2. Students could complete the Motion Picture Analysis activity sheet in Appendix 3 or note the three most significant concepts they hear. Discuss the concepts and issues raised in each film.

Activity 5: State Statistics

  1. Investigate your state’s agriculture. What do you know about farming in your state? Visit this website The USDA's Agricultural Statistics website and learn about your state’s top agricultural products and much more. How does your state’s agriculture contribute to the state’s economy?

Useful Websites

Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

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