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Utah Agriculture in the Classroom

Utah Studies

Changes & Challenges (1890s): Utah Becomes a State

Grade Level(s)

6 - 8


Students will understand the process by which Utah became a state and examine the impacts of statehood on Utah's economy.

Estimated Time

45 minutes

Materials Needed

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

Vocabulary Words

  • Homestead Act of 1862: provided 160 acres of public land free of charge (except for a small filing fee) to anyone who was either 21 years of age or head of a family, who was a citizen or person who had filed for citizenship, and who had lived on and cultivated the land for at least five years
  • dry farming: farming on nonirrigated land with little rainfall that relies on moisture-conserving tillage and drought-resistant crops

Background Agricultural Connections

Agriculture in the 1890s, Narrative

Statehood came to Utah in 1896, at a time of agricultural change. Land acts had made vast amounts of government land available to private owners. New irrigation canals were planned to bring more water to Utah's dry lands. Scientific methods for dry farming, where crops such as wheat and hay could be grown without irrigation, were being studied. These changes encouraged people to purchase more farmland. The buying of farmland led to land speculation (people buying and selling land to make money). In just a few years land ownership in Utah rose from 1.3 to over 4 million acres, the largest increase in the state's history. Once farmers owned more land they began shifting from self-sufficiency farming to commercial agriculture. The number of sheep and cattle they raised to market outside of Utah dramatically increased. Utah farmers also began raising larger crops of hay, wheat, fruits, vegetables and sugar beets to sell for cash.

The Homestead Act

The Homestead Act of 1862 was one of many land acts the United States government passed to encourage the settlement of land in the western part of the country. Signed into law in 1862 by Abraham Lincoln after the secession of southern states, this Act turned over vast amounts of the public domain to private citizens. 270 millions acres, or 10% of the area of the United States was claimed and settled under this act.

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. Each tile on the timeline in an era is called a "main event." Allow students to read through each of the main events about agriculture in Utah before the 1890s.
  3. Click on the tile captioned, "Irrigation and the Discovery of Dry Farming."
  4. As a class, read about early irrigation in Utah and the discovery of dry farming.
  5. Consider asking the following questions from the interactive timeline to lead a class discussion:
    1. Why is dry farming still a common agricultural practice used today?
    2. How would knowing that new canals were planned or under construction have encouraged you to buy land and expand your farm in the early 1900s?
    3. What role did irrigation paly in the survival of the early pioneers? What role does it play today?


  1. Share the Dry-Farming in a Nutshell excerpt with students.
  2. Explain to students that this excerpt comes from a book written by John A. Widtsoe, President of the Agricultural College of Utah (Utah State University), titled Dry-Farming: A System of Agriculture for Countries Under Low Rainfall that was published in 1920. After almost 100 years, this book is still used by farmers around the world. Why might that be?
  3. Using the Utah Precipitation Map, discuss with students why Dr. Widtsoe's book would have been so important and ask them to think about where canals and other water projects would need to be built.
  4. Considering the challenge of building irrigation infrastructure, ask students why they think early settlers might have been drawn to the American West?
  5. Have students read The Homestead Act handout, which comes from the Homestead National Monument of America website.
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation
  1. Print and cut apart the Round-Robin Discussion Questions to review the concepts covered in this lesson.
  2. Pair up your students and provide each group with one of the discussion cards.
  3. Find out which student has the first question, "Which president signed the Homestead Act?," and ask him or her to read the question out loud.
  4. Someone else has the answer on their card and should respond with the answer. Then that student should read the question on their card. Continue reading questions and answers, pausing for discussion, until all the questions have been read. Extra cards are provided for you to add your own questions.
  5. After conducting these activities, review and summarize the following key concepts:
    • Climate and availability of water determine the kinds of crops that can be cultivated in Utah.
    • Irrigation infrastructure is an important component of Utah agriculture that has changed over time.
    • The Homestead Act of 1862 was instrumental in motivating people to settle in the American West and begin farming, trading, and establishing local economies and governments.

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.