Skip to main content

Utah Agriculture in the Classroom

Utah Studies

Changes & Challenges (1980s): Recession, Expansion, and Utah Wheat

Grade Level(s)

6 - 8


Students will explore two of Utah's most important crops, gaining an understanding of the state's environment and economy in the process.

Estimated Time

45 minutes

Materials Needed

  • Changes and Challenges Interactive Timeline
  • The Great Depression article
  • Wheat Background handout
  • Utah Wheat Production Map and Data Sheet
  • Wheat in Utah - Geography & Climate activity sheet, 1 per student
  • Utah Elevation and Precipitation Maps
  • Average Precipitation and Freeze Dates Data
  • Optional: Alfalfa in Utah - Geography & Climate activity sheet, 1 per student

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

Vocabulary Words

  • combine: a harvesting machine that heads, threshes, and cleans grain while moving over a field
  • spring wheat: wheat that is sown in the spring and harvested in late summer or fall
  • winter wheat: wheat that is sown in autumn and ripens the following spring or summer

Background Agricultural Connections

Wheat can be grouped into two major types: winter wheat and spring wheat. Winter wheat is planted in fall, with time to grow several inches tall before winter arrives. The plants go dormant for winter and resume growing as soon as spring rains arrive. Spring wheat is planted as soon as the soil is dry enough to work, the earlier the better. Utah wheat farmers grow primarily hard red winter wheat, which is used to make breads and hard rolls. Soft white wheat, which is used as a cake or pastry flour, is also grown in Utah.

Wheat is a cool season crop. Growth begins at temperatures of about 37 to 39°F. Its optimal growing temperature is 77°F. Wheat prefers a frost-free period of about 100 days.

Spring wheat is typically planted as soon as the soil is dry enough to work. (Driving a tractor over wet soil can compact the soil, making it difficult for plant roots to grow and for water to enter the soil). Wheat is planted in rows five to six inches apart by a machine called a grain drill. Pulled behind a tractor, the drill opens a trench in the soil, drops the seeds into the trench, and then pulls soil over the top of the newly planted seeds.

The seed begins to grow when there is enough moisture in the soil. Growth begins when tiny roots stretch down into the soil. Eventually, a small shoot pushes upward through the soil. Tissue within the wheat seed provides the plant with its first nourishment. As the plant grows, it uses the sun to make food in its leaves. Its roots also get food (minerals and water) from the soil. In the spring, the wheat plant grows six to eight leaves per stem and sends up three to ten stalks of golden flowers called heads. If the plant is fortunate enough to avoid disease, kernels within the wheat head will grow healthy and plump for harvesting.

Wheat must be dry before it can be harvested. In Utah, most harvesting occurs in late July or early August. With one pass through the wheat field, a machine called a combine is used to cut, separate, and clean the wheat. The farmer stores the harvested grain in bins on the farm or at storage structures called elevators. From there, the wheat is shipped to a mill where it will be ground, sifted, and blended to produce different kinds of flour. Whole wheat flour contains all the components of the original seed. The outer layers of the wheat kernel, called bran, are removed from white flour. Bran has a slightly bitter taste, is rich in vitamins and minerals, and is often added to breakfast cereals and breads for nutritious fiber.

Agriculture in the 1980s, Narrative

By 1980 only 15 percent of Utahns lived in rural areas. The number of farms in Utah dropped to 13,500 and the average farm size dropped slightly to 919 acres. Farmlands dropped to 12.4 million acres. The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints reduced its welfare farms during the 1980s. For decades the welfare farms had permitted non-farmers in Utah to continue practicing rural values and skills. In 1980, the Stevens Canning Company in Roy closed. It was the last of the independent canners in the state and its closing brought an end to one of Utah's historic industries. Sugar beets, a major cash crop for most of the century, were no longer grown in Utah after 1979. The national recession of the early 1980s kept Utah farm income from keeping up with expenses until the recovery later in the decade. The 1980s saw production records set in certain years for growing wheat and other grains. Records were also set for apple production, the number of beef cattle, and the number of mink pelts.

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. On the Changes and Challenges Interactive Timeline, allow your students to listen to the narrative on the tile captioned, "Agriculture in the 1980s."
  2. Open the web link related to commercial sugar beet production and discuss the history of this crop in Utah.
  3. Open the web link to the interactive map, and share the U.S. maps of wheat and alfalfa production with students.
  4. Ask students to consider Utah's wheat and alfalfa production. Where does Utah rank nationally?
  5. Explain to students that they are going to be exploring these important crops in more depth in the following lesson.


  1. Have students read the Wheat Background handout.
  2. Ask students to tell you where they think wheat is grown in Utah.
  3. Give each student a copy of the Utah Wheat Production Map or display the map on an overhead projector. Students will also need a copy of the Utah Wheat Data Sheet.
  4. Give each student a copy of the activity sheet Wheat in Utah - Geography & Climate. Using maps in your Utah Studies textbook (e.g., Utah Climate Pie Chart and Utah Elevations map) or the Utah Elevation and Precipitation Maps provided with this lesson, ask students to complete the activity sheet. The Average Precipitation and Freeze Dates Data may also be helpful.
  5. Ask students if they see any patterns or similarities among the top five counties producing wheat. Remember that in Utah, some of our wheat is grown with irrigation and some is grown using dryland farming methods (relying on rain alone). You'll notice some counties have low yields per acre even though planted acreage is high. The reason: this land is dryland farmed, meaning there are no costs for irrigation, but crops give lower yield and a lower profit.
  6. Optional: Share the Utah Alfalfa Hay Production Map and Data Sheet with students and have them complete the Alfalfa in Utah - Geography & Climate activity sheet. Compare alfalfa production areas with wheat production areas in the state. Are there similarities? Alfalfa is a perennial plant that a farmer will harvest for about five years without replanting. In contrast, wheat is an annual crop that has to be replanted each year. How are the environments where wheat and alfalfa are grown in Utah different in terms of precipitation and frost-free days? What do you notice about climate for wheat and alfalfa? Check out the prices for wheat and hay crops. Based on the prices, what should a farmer have planted in the given year?
Concept Elaboration and Evaluation

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

  • Climate and the availability of natural resources like water determine what types of crops can be grown in a place.
  • Wheat and alfalfa hay are important crops in the state of Utah.

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.