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Utah Agriculture in the Classroom

Utah Studies

Changes & Challenges (1920s-1930s): Agricultural Hard Times and The Great Depression

Grade Level(s)

6 - 8


Students will investigate the relationship between physical geography and Utah's settlement, land use, and economy, assess how natural resources sustain and enhance people's lives, and examine how people affect the geography of Utah.

Estimated Time

45 minutes

Materials Needed

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

Vocabulary Words

  • Taylor Grazing Act of 1934: a United States federal law that provides for the regulation of grazing on the public lands (excluding Alaska) to improve rangeland conditions and regulate their use
  • overgrazing: to allow animals to graze (as a pasture) to the point of damaging the vegetation

Background Agricultural Connections

Screen 5, Agriculture in the 1920s, Narrative

The 1920s brought serious problems for Utah agriculture. Half of the 25,662 farms in the state were mortgaged because farmers and ranchers had borrowed money to expand them. Unfortunately, the end of World War I caused the demand and prices for Utah farm goods to drop. Over 5 million acres of farmland had been created but the average farm size fell to 197 acres. Farmers in the 1920s had to search for new cash crops. Increasingly, farmers planted sugar beets and row vegetables or produced milk for local canneries. Utah farmers also experimented with producing large quantities of alfalfa seed to sell. Some farmers tried their hand at fur farming by raising foxes, and later mink, for their pelts. Farmers in southern Utah began to raise turkeys or grow more melons to sell. All around the state farmers still depended on sheep and cattle for cash income. Overgrazing by the millions of sheep in Utah contributed to devastating floods in the 1920s and 30s.

Screen 6, Agriculture in the 1930s, Narrative

In 1930 less than half of Utahns lived in rural areas. The agricultural problems of the 1920s became a crisis during the Great Depression. Prices for Utah livestock and crops plummeted, causing farm income to fall almost 60 percent. By mid-decade the number of farms in Utah, after reaching a high of 30,000, began to decline. In 1934 Congress passed the Taylor Grazing Act to restore damaged watersheds. Limits on grazing on public lands reduced the number of sheep in Utah by almost one million. Only the canning industry and the new frozen food industry held on. Economic disaster was followed by physical disaster. In 1934 Utah received the lowest amount of rain on record. The drought that followed was a catastrophe. Irrigation water was estimated as low as 15 percent of normal. Federal aid was arranged to try to save farmers. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established a welfare plan, but over 25% of the rural families in Utah still ended up on federal relief during the 1930s.

More About the Great Depression in Utah

Throughout the Depression the government paid for many work projects in Utah to improve roads, parks, forests, water and irrigation resources.

The federal government, to ease the crisis, instituted a federal livestock-purchasing program buying a total of 155,000 cattle and 250,000 sheep from Utah farmers and ranchers. These animals, which would not have survived the drought, were slaughtered at a cost to the government of $2,000,000. President Franklin D. Roosevelt also provided the State with a $600,000 in emergency funds to "save $3,600,000 in crops and protect orchards and small fruit and alfalfa fields for future years, at the same time keeping 10,000 families now self-supporting off relief rolls." Within 36 hours of being told about the pending catastrophe and plan, all of the money was spent on water and irrigation projects to save the state's crops and livestock.

Even non-rural families increased home production of fruits and vegetables and home canning to try to make ends meet. But private and local assistance alone could not meet the crisis. Many ethnic farmers and farm workers left Utah during these years.

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 & Challenges multimedia teaching tool accompanies the following lessons:

Interest Approach – Engagement

  1. View the Agriculture in the 1920s and the Agriculture in the 1930s sections of the Changes and Challenges multimedia program with your students.
  2. Use the following Procedures section as a guide to explore the concepts in the multimedia presentation.


Agriculture in the 1920s: Hard Times

  1. Open the picture link titled "Sugar Beet Cultivation" in the Changes & Challenges multimedia presentation, and discuss the associated question:
    • Why do you think farmers with only a few extra acres would bother to raise labor-intensive sugar beets? (Sugar beets were a cash crop worth more than other crops grown in Utah.)
  2. Open the text link titled "Sheep in the 1920s" in the multimedia presentation, share the text with students, and discuss the associated questions:
    • How might the characteristics that made sheep ideal for prospering in Utah also have contributed to the flooding that occurred in Utah during these years? (Sheep eat nearly everything and overgrazing leads to soil erosion and flooding.)
    • What are we doing on Utah's lands and watersheds today that might cause flooding to occur again? (Removing vegetation on the foothills for homes.)
  3. Use the "Video Clip About Sheep in Utah" from the multimedia presentation to further explore the importance and impact of sheep in Utah during this period. Additionally, you may wish to share this Utah History to Go article: Sheep Fueled the 1920s Economy.
  4. Open the picture link titled "Mink Production" in the multimedia presentation, and discuss the associated question:
    • If more people protest against wearing furs like mink what impact will it have on Utah farmers? (Lower demand would cause a collapse in prices thus forcing mink farmers out of business.)

Agriculture in the 1930s: The Great Depression

  1. Ask students to read the article The Great Depression individually, or navigate to the article using the web link titled "The Effects of the Great Depression" in the Changes & Challenges multimedia presentation.
  2. Research the answers to the questions associated with the article:
    • What effect did the depression have on families in Utah?
    • How might farmers and rural families been better off than those living in Utah's cities?
    • How might farmers and rural families been worse off than those living in Utah's cities?
    • How do Utah farmers today benefit from federal government programs? (The government provides farmers with subsidies, money, to prop up low crop prices, sometimes based on increased supplies or imports, and assists farmers by buying surpluses for government food programs like food stamps, Women and Infant Care [WIC], and school lunch).
    • How do consumers benefit from these government programs? (Our collective taxes support lower food prices overall.)
  3. Explain to students that the 1930s were also a time of North American drought. Utah was in a drought as well and part of the “dirty thirties.” Water has always been one of Utah's most vital resources. Water is stored in two ways: (1) above ground in lakes, reservoirs, rivers and streams; and (2) below ground as ground water.
  4. Investigate Utah's ground water resources with your students using the Maps of Utah Ground Water Aquifers and Basins and sharing with them the information on the Utah's Ground Water handout. Ask students to consider the following question:
    • What groups do you think are competing for the state's limited water resources?
  5. Share the oral history Our Family Farm in Alpine Utah with students (also provided as a text link in the Changes & Challenges presentation. Discuss the following question:
    • In the 1930s Utahns purchased most of their fresh produce from around Utah. Where does the produce we buy today come from?
  6. Explain to students that by the early 1930s, there were almost 100,000 cars and trucks in Utah and 24,000 miles of paved, gravel, and dirt roads. Discuss the following question:
    • How would increasing the miles of roads in Utah benefit farmers? (transportation for delivering crops)
  7. Using the Official Highway Map of Utah or another road map of Utah, ask students to identify the route they would take to get from various rural towns to Salt Lake City traveling the most direct route and avoiding Interstate highways, which weren't built until the late 1950s. Ask them to consider how long it would take if they were traveling by horse (30 miles per day), and by car traveling 60 mph.

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.