Farming Changes

Getting Started
Pre-Reading Activity
Grades 9–12
Language Arts, History, Economics
Small Group, Entire Class, Research, Discussion


  • Students will understand that major elements in the transition from agrarian to mechanized, industrial farming in the early 20th Century.
  • Students will understand the basics of migrant farm labor in California.


The culmination of changes in farming methods, economic collapse, drought, and an ecological disaster sent the United States plummeting into the Great Depression. The poor and small farmers in the South and Southwest were forced off their land as small farms were repossessed and combined to create larger, mechanized farms. With no hope of work at home, families like the Joads headed West to California.

Meanwhile, California agriculture had long been made of enormous land holdings worked by a never-ending flow of foreign migrant workers. This was the situation that the Joad family arrived to find.

In this activity students will examine the transition from small agrarian farming to the large mechanized, industrial farms prevalent in California.

Materials Needed/Preparation

Estimated Time

  • 1-2 class periods
  • Can be done in 1 class session if students are assigned the warm up work as homework prior to this activity.


Warm up

  • Students have read background information on the Great Depression.
  • Watch the following clips form the PBS documentary “The Dust Bowl” by Ken Burns:
  • ~“Woody Guthrie: The Great Dust Storm”
  • ~“Uncovering the Dust Bowl”
  • Journal or in notes
  • ~What changes in farming occurred in the 1920s and 1930s that contributed to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression?
  • ~What economic choices were made in the 1920s and 1930s that contributed to the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression?
  • ~Pair-share with a partner
  • ~Share to the class


  • Divide students into small groups
  • Have groups read “Farm Labor in the 1930s” and “The Migrant Experience
  • ~For classes that need additional help with close reading, break up each article and use the Jigsaw method.
  • ~Have students complete the Farming Changes Organizer.
  • ~Discuss student findings and how they connect with The Grapes of Wrath

Post Activity/Takeaways/Follow-up


  • The aim of this activity is to create a foundation of knowledge about the economic and agricultural changes that led to the Great Depression and to the massive migration of people into California.
  • Students should also understand that much of California had already become a land of industrialized farming methods reliant upon migrant laborers.


  • Return to student notes as you read the novel.

Post Activity

  • Consider assigning students short written assignments comparing their notes in this activity with Steinbeck’s descriptions in the novel.


  • Read “A Primer on the ‘30s” (America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction) by John Steinbeck.
  • Read “Starvation under the Orange Trees” (America and Americans and Selected Nonfiction), by John Steinbeck.
  • See The Harvest Gypsies lesson plans for more in-depth look at these issues.


  • Students should thoroughly complete the organizer and site the proper passages from the text.

Common Core State Standards Met

  • Reading Standards for Literature 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 5, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7, 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Reading Standards for Informational Text 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1,2,3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4,5,6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 7,8
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 2
  • ~Range of Writing: 10
  • Speaking and Listening Standards 6-12
  • ~Comprehension and Collaboration: 1, 2, 3, 4
  • ~Presentation and Knowledge of Ideas: 4
  • Language Standards 6-12
  • ~Conventions of Standard English: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Knowledge of Language: 3
  • ~Vocabulary Acquisition and Use: 6
  • Reading Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies 6-12
  • ~Key Ideas and Details: 1, 2, 3
  • ~Craft and Structure: 4, 6
  • ~Integration of Knowledge and Ideas: 8, 9
  • ~Range of Reading and Level of Text Complexity: 10
  • Writing Standards for Literacy in History/Social Studies, Science, and Technical Subjects 6-12
  • ~Text Types and Purposes: 2
  • ~Production and Distribution of Writing: 4, 5
  • ~Research to Build and Present Knowledge: 7

Related Lesson Plans for this Work