Target Grade Level / Age Range:

4 th Grade


Four 60-minute class periods

Virtual Learning:

Use this document to convert the lesson into a virtual learning module for your students. Use the steps outlined to create the different elements of a Google Classroom or other online learning platform. You can also send the steps directly to students in a PDF, present them in a virtual meeting, or plug them into any other virtual learning module system. 


Students will identify different factors about how family farms in the Midwest have changed in the last 200 years.   


  • KWL chart
  • 3 Large pieces of construction paper for each group.
    • Light Blue
    • Pink
    • Yellow

Suggested Companion Resources

  • A Day at our Dairy Farm by Barbary Reeves
  • My Family’s Beef Farm by Katie Olthoff
  • My Family’s Corn Farm by Katie Olthoff
  • My Family’s Soybean Farm by Katie Olthoff
  • Farmer Will Allen and the Growing Table by Jacqueline Briggs Martin
  • Food From Farms by Nancy Dickmann
  • A Day in the Life of a Farmer by Heather Adamson
  • A Farm Through Time by Angela Wilkes
  • A Visit to the Farm by B. A. Hoena
  • Century Farm by Cris Peterson
  • Diary of a Farmer by Angela Royston
  • Farming Then and Now by Charles R Smith
  • Farms Long Ago by Jennifer Blizin Gillis
  • Food and Farming, Then and Now by Bobbie Kalman
  • Grandpa’s Tractor by Michael Garland
  • Then and Now Farming by Katie Roden

Vocabulary (with definitions)

  • Self-sufficient: doing everything necessary to take care of yourself on your own
  • Dairy: a farm that produces milk and milk products
  • Reaper: a machine for cutting grain
  • Combine: a machine that combines many functions into one machine to cut, thresh, and shuck grain from an ear of corn
  • Sod: a mixture of soil and roots of grass
  • Canning: preserving food by cooking and sealing it in cans or jars
  • Agribusiness: farming on a large scale by big companies
  • Fertilizer: a substance added to the soil to improve plant growth and increase soil fertility
  • Pesticide: a substance used on crops to kill insects and other pests that are damaging the crop planted
  • Biotechnology: the use of science and scientific tools to modify an organism to have certain characteristics
  • GPS  (Global Positioning System): a network of orbiting satellites that send precise details of their position in space back to earth

Background – Agricultural Connections

Today there are fewer but bigger farms than there were in the 1800s. Almost 80 years ago, the United States had the largest number of farms, and that number has fallen by almost 4 million since. In 1935, there were roughly 6 million farms and in 2012 there were roughly 2 million. Even though the number of farms have decreased, the size of farms has doubled in size. The amount of total land being farmed has remained approximately the same. The picture on the right gives a visual of family farms then and now.

In 1862, Abraham Lincoln created the USDA (U.S. Department of Agriculture). At that time about 90 out of every 100 Americans were farmers. Today, that number has shrunk to just 2 out of every 100 Americans. Today it doesn’t take as many people to work on farms as it once did. In the 1830s, ‘40s and ‘50s, pioneers first settled Iowa's rich prairie lands. At the time, most farms were just 80 acres. That was as much land as most pioneer farmers could take care of on their own with the resources they had. By 1900 many Iowa farms were larger than 80 acres, and most farming was done with simple machines and horses. In the early 20th century, farms were more diverse than today. Most farmers raised lots of different crops and cared for many varied animals. Farmers planted corn, oats, wheat, and barley, and raised a variety of livestock like cattle, hogs, chickens, sheep, and horses. Women planted large gardens of produce and tended to chickens and sold eggs. The families living on these farms in this time period worked to feed themselves throughout the year. They canned a lot of their produce to feed themselves throughout the winter and sold some of their crops to make a profit to buy goods and services they could not make on the farm.

As the years moved on, machinery and technology developed and that completely changed the way family farms worked and operated. As machinery developed, less hired help was needed to work the fields and farmers could plant and harvest more efficiently. Machinery and technology allowed farmers to grow their operation because they could plant more and still harvest in the same amount of time. As farms got larger they became less diverse. Many Iowa farmers began to specialize in certain crops and markets such as corn and soybeans or they raised hogs or cattle with some field crops too. As farms grew larger and people were not growing crops and raising livestock to sustain their food supply throughout the year, many families moved off the farms where their grandparents once lived.

Today’s farmers require a great knowledge of advanced technology, educational preparation, and business skills. Many farmers have a college education and bring those skills back to the farm to continue to improve their operation.

Interest Approach or Motivator

Hand out a piece of paper to each student and tell them to draw a modern-day farm and a farmer.  Most kids will probably draw an Old McDonald scene where there is a wide variety of livestock, a red barn, and a farmer with a straw hat. This is the general characterization about farms and farmers but that is not how they look today.

Have students share their drawings with the students around them. Allow for a 2-minute sharing session. Have students keep their drawing to refer to at the end of the lesson.


Day 1:

  1. Using the KWL Chart.doc, as a class fill out the K part of the chart to see what students know about farming.  Hang the chart in the room to refer back to.
  2. Ask students what Iowa is known for in the United States? (They are known for being a top agriculture producing state.) Explain that agriculture and farming is a very important part of Iowa’s economy. We have great fertile soil to grow crops and we use these crops to feed livestock. Iowa is the number one producer of corn, soybeans, pigs, and eggs.
  3. Explain to students that what farming looks like today is not what farming looked like 150 or even 80 years ago. Technology and machines changed the way farmers grew plants and livestock.
  4. Split the class into 3 groups. Explain that the groups will each become the experts on what farming in the Midwest looked like in their assigned century (1800s, 1900s,  and 2000s).
  5. Together on the WANT TO KNOW part of the KWL chart list what we think we should know about these 3 different times. Lead them to things like: number of people the farm fed, number of people during that time that were farmers, number of acres the typical farm would have been, tools used on the farm, what farm life and farms themselves looked like, struggles for the farm/farmer.
  6. Kids can do some research on their own at home to bring to their group the next day otherwise there will be time to do some research on day 2.

Day 2:

  1. Remind kids of the KWL chart and what we want to learn about. 
  2. Students should work in their three groups (1800s, 1900s, and 2000s) to become experts on those time periods
    1. They can use the books listed in the suggested companion resources, internet, or other sources to conduct their research on the various time periods.
    2. They should find information that explains:
      1. General Midwest information from the time period (i.e. 1800s Midwest was being settled by European immigrants, 1900s growing food to support war efforts, 2000s technology advances like precision agriculture)
      2. Farm tools used during the time period (1800s horse drawn moldboard plows, 1900s mechanized tractors, 2000s autosteer tractors)
      3. What family life was like during the time period (1800s sod roofed houses and no plumbing, 1900s running water and electricity become common, 2000s internet and technology are common)
  3. You can use these colors to help compare the different centuries of family farming.
  4. Oversee the groups to make sure they are working hard, together, and headed in the right direction.
  5. Students will need to decide who will work on what part, this is to encourage team building.

Day 3:

  1. Hand out the construction paper all three colors to each group. General Midwest information should go on the blue paper. Farm tools should go on the yellow paper. Information on family life should go on the pink paper.  Remind them of good handwriting or typing their print so others can read it.  Remind students that pictures are important, but pictures need to be captioned so they know what it is being displayed.
  2. Provide time for practice of their presentation. Be the expert on your century!

Final Day:

  1. Presentation Day. When presenting, remind students that they are to tell about their learning and what they found. They should not read their information off their poster. Remind them that they are the experts and that they need to inform the rest of their classmates on farming during that century. Students can also dress up like the farmers that century.
  2. Hang the posters up around the room.
  3. Once posters are hung up, have an exhibit walk. Ask students to make notes about changes they see between the different centuries.
  4. Once the students have made their way around the room and have made notes on their observations have a class discussion that to talk about those differences.
  5. Have students pull out their drawing that they did at the very beginning of the lesson? Based off of the information they learned, is their drawing of a modern-day farmer accurate?
  6. Have students redraw what a modern-day farmer looks like. 

Essential Files

KWL Chart.doc

Did you know?

  • A corn-based plastic can decompose safely and quickly, making it better for our environment.
  • Today, the average farmer feeds approximately 165 people.

Extension Activities

  • Have the principal come in and have the students explain their learning to them.
  • Have a FarmChat® with a beef, pork, dairy, or local farmer.



Hannah Pagel

Susie Noonan- Kennedy School

National Agriculture Literacy Outcomes

  • T4.3-5: Compare simple tools to complex modern machines used in agricultural systems to improve efficiency and reduce labor.
  • T4.3-5b: Describe how technology helps framers/ranchers increase their outputs.

Iowa Core Standards

  • Social Studies:
    • SS.4.10: Describe how societies have changed in the past and continue to change.
    • SS.4.25: Analyze the impact of technological changes in Iowa, across time and place.
    • SS.4.26: Explain how Iowa’s agriculture has changed over time.

Creative Commons License

This work is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.