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Utah Agriculture in the Classroom

Utah Studies

Changes & Challenges (1840s-1880s): Era of Self-Sufficiency

Grade Level(s)

6 - 8


Students will be introduced to Utah's agricultural limitations and develop perspective and appreciation of early Utah settlers who struggled for self-sufficiency.

Estimated Time

45 minutes

Materials Needed

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

Vocabulary Words

  • self-sufficiency: being able to provide for one's own needs without outside aid

Background Agricultural Connections

Agriculture Before 1890, Narrative

Utah is not the best state for agriculture; good land and water are both scarce. Nevertheless, hundreds of small farming villages were founded throughout Utah after the arrival of the Mormon pioneers in 1847. Families in these villages farmed on small plots of land near their communities.

The land was dry and had to be irrigated for raising animals and crops. Farmers brought water to their land by digging ditches and canals with hand tools and horsepower. During the first decades of Utah settlement, each family and village worked to become self-sufficient, striving to grow and raise everything they needed to take care of themselves.

But as Utah approached statehood and the twentieth century, there were changes ahead. What happened to Utah agriculture after statehood? What impact would these changes have on the people of Utah? What effect would the changes in Utah's agriculture have on our rural communities, our economy, our land and water use, and our values. Consider these questions as you study Changes and Challenges: A Century of Utah Agriculture.

The Importance of Self-Sufficiency

Farmers during Utah's period of self-sufficiency farming raised wheat for bread, cattle for meat, and sheep for meat and wool. They also grew hay, barley, corn and oats to feed their animals. Families kept chickens for meat and eggs, and dairy cows for milk. In the warm climate of southern Utah farmers experimented with growing sugar cane for sugar and molasses, grapes for wine, and cotton for cloth. Utah women even tried raising silkworms to produce silk for making fine dresses.

Changes & Challenges Unit

This lesson is one in a series of lessons designed to accompany the Utah Studies course taught throughout Utah. The unit explores the settlement of Utah, the self-sufficient nature of the state's people, and the future of Utah agriculture and agricultural land. The Changes and Challenges Interactive Timeline accompanies the following lessons:

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. View the The Era of Self-Sufficiency (1845-1880s)on the Changes and Challenges interactive timeline with your students.
  2. As a class, listen to the narrative on the tile captioned, "Agriculture Before 1890."
  3. Ask students to click on the timeline tile captioned, "pre-1890s Early Farming in Utah."
  4. Allow students to read about early farming in Utah and study the photos. 
  5. Watch the video clip about the history of irrigation in Emery County. Discuss the question asked with the video, "What role did irrigation play in the survival of the early pioneers. What role does it play today?"
  6. Ask your students to study the photo of Widtsoe, Utah. Discuss the question asked with the photo, "What can you learn... about the people who chose to farm the land surrounding these isolated Utah villages?"


Horse pulling low hand-held by man.
Source: National Archives and Records Administration
  1. Ask students to read the article What Made the Mormon Landscape Unique?
  2. Working in groups, ask each group to answer one or all of the questions below. Alternatively, you may choose to use the Era of Self-Sufficiency, Screen 1 Questions activity sheet.
    • Why might the people of Utah have worked so hard to become self-sufficient in the years before statehood? 
    • Why were they different?
    • What made Mormon villages in Utah different from other American settlements?
    • How have communities that began as Mormon villages in Utah changed over the years?
    • What things, if any, have not changed?
  3. Review the Utah Vegetation and Annual Precipitation Maps. Ask students to answer the questions below by interpreting what they see on the maps. Alternatively, you may choose to use the Era of Self-Sufficiency, Screen 1 Questions activity sheet.
    • Why doesn't Utah have more good land for growing crops? (geography)
    • Where are the major water resources in the state? (national forest land, this protects our watersheds)
    • What other challenges did Utah's geography pose for farmers? (climate, the lack of precipitation)
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:

  • The climate and availability of natural resources determined what kinds of crops and livestock could successfully be raised by the first Mormon pioneers who settled in Utah.
  • Farming allowed early Utah settlers to achieve self-sufficiency.

Enriching Activities

  • Use the publication Working with Nature to further explore irrigation and the Utah watershed with your students.

Suggested Companion Resources


Debra Spielmaker

Organization Affiliation

Utah Agriculture in the Classroom

State Standards for Utah
Grade 7: Social Studies Standard 4
Students will understand the diverse ways people make a living in Utah.
Objective 2
  • Investigate the past and present role of agriculture in Utah. Meeting one or more of the following indicators:
    1. Identify the importance of farming and ranching to Utah's economy.
    2. Explain the impact the Great Depression on farmers and agriculture.
    3. investigate how agriculture has diversified and improved over time.
    4. Examine the cultural legacy of agriculture in Utah.
Grade 7: Social Studies Standard 1
Students will understand the interaction between Utah's geography and its inhabitants.
Objective 1
  • Investigate the relationship between physical geography and Utah's settlement, land use, and economy. Meeting one or more of the following indicators:
    1. Read and interpret a variety of maps.
    2. Identify the physical features and regions of Utah.
    3. Compare and contrast the relationship between physical features and regions to settlement, land use, and the economy.
Objective 3
  • Assess how natural resources sustain and enhance people's lives. Meeting one or more of the following indicators:
    1. Recognize the impact of water, minerals, wildlife, and forests on people.
    2. Distinguish between renewable and non-renewable resources.
    3. Analyze how natural resources improve the quality of life.
    4. Assess the importance of protecting and preserving natural resources.
Objective 4
  • Examine how people affect the geography of Utah. Meeting one or more of the following indicators:
    1. Identify Utah's counties and cities.
    2. Assess how people change the landscape.
    3. Examine how altered landscapes affect people.
Grade 7: Social Studies Standard 2
Students will understand the contributions of Native American Indians, explorers, and Utah's pioneers.
Objective 3
  • Describe the significance of pioneers in Utah history. Meeting the following indicator:
    1. Explore the pattern of Mormon settlement throughout the West. Recognize how the Mormon pioneers' heritage influences Utah today.