The Mystery of the Amazing Farmers


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Think about and answer the following questions.barn

  • How many US workers today are farmers?
  • Do you live on a farm?
  • Did your parents or grandparents live on a farm?


The numbers show a big change in the agricultural workforce.


  • 200 years ago, 90% of the population farmed

  • Today less than 2% of the population farms.

What might explain this change? How can so few farmers produce enough food and fiber for so many people?

In this lesson you will be taking on the role of an investigative reporter to solve the Amazing Farmer Mystery.

The goal will be to use seven clues provided throughout the lesson in order to figure out how so few farmers can produce enough food and fiber for the nation.

clueClue #1

In using this clue, you will focus on increases in farmers' capacity to supply food. To describe the increased capacity, you will answer a series of questions and create a graph to display the data.

Aren't these numbers amazing?

Graph this data using the following interactive module.

Graphing Activity

Isn't it amazing that one farmer can supply food and fiber for over 75 people?

Complete the following mystery.


  • Why can a farmer today produce so much more than farmers 100 years ago?
  • Were the farmers in 1900 lazy? Are farmers today more hardworking people?
  • How did this increase in productivity happen?

clueClue #2

Economists tell us that investment in factories, machinery, new technology, and in the health, education, and training of people can increase productivity. That is, the output per worker can increase.

Visit the following two web sites to look for investments that might have increased the productivity of farmers.
Record their results on this printable copy of the chart below: Labor Hours chart (PDF 44k)

Look especially for real capital (tools, factories, equipment) improvements that have affected the production of wheat; Also look for improvements in technology and human capital that might have affected the production of wheat and other products.

Year Labor Hours
To produce
100 bushels of
Examples of improvements in real capital (factories, tools, equipment) technology (know-how) or human capital (improved knowledge and skills of workers)
that may have improved productivity.

Real capital


Human capital


For information on output and real capital: History of American Agriculture .
*For information on human capital and technology: History of American Agriculture .

clueClue #3

plowMore output per hour of labor is an improvement in productivity.
Use the information in the chart you just completed to answer the following questions.

  • Was there an improvement in the output of wheat per hour? (Were farmers able to grow 100 bushels of wheat in less time each year?
  • What made farmers more productive?

Did you find examples of improvements in real capital, human capital and technology that may have contributed to this increase in productivity?

Complete the following interactive activity to see if they can determine which of the examples are real capital, which are human capital and which represent technology?

Interactive Activity

Interactive Activity

clueClue #4

See if you can determine how we measure productivity. Using the formula below, take the following short answer quiz.


clueClue #5

female farmerHigher farm productivity has led to lower labor costs. Lower labor costs can lead to lower prices for consumers--an improvement in their standard of living.

Farmer A and Farmer B are both corn producers. Determine which one produces more corn and which produces corn at a cheaper cost with the following quiz

clueClue #6

A picture is worth many words.

Draw a pie chart entitled "Farm and non-Farm employment in the US in 1990". Alternatively, use the web sites listed below to generate the graphs.

Make a graph to show what has happened to the number of farmers since 1799. Again, you can create a graph on paper or use the web site listed. Below are the two choices.

Which method of graphing is faster, drawing a graph or using technology to draw a graph?

Choice A:
You may print the chart and draw a graph with one line for the population and another line for the percentage of the labor force occupied in farming.

Choice B:
You may go to this site The Kids Zone , enter the data and the computer will generate a chart for you.

Point out that computers can increase productivity by helping us do work faster.

Graph Information

  • You will be making a line chart with 10 points.
  • Add the following data to make a line graph that shows the percentage of the labor force occupied in farming from 1799 to 1990
  • Label the “Y” axis “Percentage of the labor force in farming”
  • Label the “X” axis Year (If you are doing this using the web site, note that this column will only accept numbers up to 1000; thus you will need to leave the final zero off the year. You can add it by hand if you print the chart.)
  • Data:
    • 1776-1799: 90%
    • 1840: 69%
    • 1860: 58%
    • 1880: 49%
    • 1900: 38%
    • 1920: 27%
    • 1940: 18%
    • 1960: 8.3%
    • 1980: 3.4%
    • 1990: 2.6%

clueClue #7.

farmerWhen fewer farmers can produce the food and fiber the nation needs, many people can leave farms and produce other goods and services that consumers may want. With modern capital, advanced technology and skilled labor 2.6% of the labor force can produce an ample supply of food and fiber for the nation. This means that 97% of the labor force can specialize in other kinds of work. Thus, you can specialize in the kind of work that suits you best.

Check out the Bureau of Labor Statistics site for some of the other careers that you could choose today. 

Because farmers are so productive, the other 97% of the labor force can produce millions of other goods and services that consumers want. You can go to the Bureau of Labor Statistics site to see some of the other industries where people work.

Thus, improvements in farm productivity have allowed many people to do other, non-farm work that they may like better. As a result, many additional goods and services can be produced. How do you think this development will affect the nation's standard of living?

clueCan you solve the mystery?

Based on your clues provided in the Graphing Activity, you will need to name three types of improvements that have brought about the large increase in agricultural productivity.

This is not the end of the story. Farmers continue to become more efficient. Check this Online Farmer site. How might the information it presents help a farmer to be more productive?


What do you know about farming in your state? Go to the National Agriculture Statistics Service site to see what the top two agricultural products in your state are.

Check out this timeline of the history of agriculture in the United States.