SOIL, Designing the Small Farm of the Future

By Cooper-Hewitt National Design Museum, April 5, 2010

Grade Level

  • Middle School


  • Architecture

Subject Area

  • Science
  • Social Studies

Lesson Time

2 hours


When we picture a farm, perhaps we imagine a red barn, cows and corn on rolling hills, and a farmer in a straw hat and overalls. Most modern farms do not resemble this quaint image. Agriculture, which refers to the production of food through farming, has gone through many changes in the past century. Industrial farming is currently the most prevalent form of agriculture in the United States. Most meat, poultry, dairy, eggs, vegetables, fruit, processed foods, and baked goods found in American supermarkets and restaurants are produced using methods of industrial agriculture.
However, small-scale farming is experiencing a renaissance in the United States. More and more families are returning to the land, and learning how to farm sustainably. Learning about farming brings together many essential practical skills every student should know – how to grow food and how to survey land to determine the environmental quality of natural resources like soil and water. In this lesson, students will consider contemporary and historical farming techniques and strategies. Students will use design-thinking to evaluate current challenges and develop solutions to farming that are sustainable and more environmentally friendly than current offerings. This exercise will compliment social studies lessons about the role of agriculture and the development of major civilizations throughout world history.

National Standards

Common Core English Language Arts Strand Reading for Informational Text   RI.6.7.  Integrate information presented in different media or formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively) as well as in words to develop a coherent understanding of a topic or issue. Common Core English Language Arts Strand Writing W.6.2.  Write informative/explanatory texts to examine a topic and convey ideas, concepts, and information through the selection, organization, and analysis of relevant content. W.6.4.  Produce clear and coherent writing in which the development, organization, and style are appropriate to task, purpose, and audience. Common Core English Language Arts Strand Speaking and Listening   SL.6.1.  Engage effectively in a range of collaborative discussions (one-on-one, in groups, and teacherled) with diverse partners on grade topics, texts, and issues, building on others’ ideas and expressing their own clearly. SL.6.2.  Interpret information presented in diverse media and formats (e.g., visually, quantitatively, orally) and explain how it contributes to a topic, text, or issue under study. SL.6.4.  Present claims and findings, sequencing ideas logically and using pertinent descriptions, facts, and details to accentuate main ideas or themes; use appropriate eye contact, adequate volume, and clear pronunciation. SL.6.5.  Include multimedia components (e.g., graphics, images, music, sound) and visual displays in presentations to clarify information. Common Core Mathematics Solve real-world and mathematical problems involving area, surface area, and volume. World History Era 1: The Beginnings of Human Society Standard 1. Understands the biological and cultural processes that shaped the earliest human communities Standard 2. Understands the processes that contributed to the emergence of agricultural societies around the world Era 3: Classical Traditions, Major Religions, and Giant Empires 1000 BCE-300 CE Standard 10. Understands how early agrarian civilizations arose in Mesoamerica Era 4: Expanding Zones of Exchange and Encounter, 300-1000 CE Standard 16. Understands the development of agricultural societies and new states in tropical Africa and Oceania Science: Life Science Standard 6. Understands relationships among organisms and their physical environment Technology Standard 3. Understands the relationships among science, technology, society, and the individual


  •  Students will learn some basic concepts for designing a small-scale farm for food production.
  •  Students will consider historical contexts in the role of agriculture and trade in world history.
  •  Students will use design-thinking to develop strategies for environmental problems related to industrial farming.


National Farm to School Network -
Small Planet Institute -
Look at the Cooper-Hewitt’s Design for the Other 90% archive - Domed Pit Latrine, Water Storage System for ideas on how to build small farm infrastructure sustainably.


Pencil, maps, poster paper


• Livestock - Farm animals that are used to produce goods like meat, fibers (for clothing) or for labor like plowing fields.
• Industrial farming - A modern farming technique that refers to large-scale industrialized production of livestock, poultry, fish, and food crops.
 Genetically Modified Organism (GMO) - An organism whose genetic material has been altered using genetic engineering techniques like altering DNA to make a crop more water tolerant, or make fruits and vegetables grow bigger, more colorful, with less natural flaws, or keep when they are shipped long distances.
• Bovine Growth Hormone (rGBH) - Also known as bovine somatatropin, it is a protein hormone secreted by the pituitary gland that stimulates growth and cell reproduction. Using DNA technology, this hormone is produced in large amounts in laboratories by agricultural companies like Monsanto, and is used to increase yields of milk or other products in cattle.
• Agriculture - The production of food through farming, which has gone through many changes in the past century.
• Farm worker - Non-tenured agricultural worker.
• Farm owner- The person who owns the farm business and land.
• Farm operator - The person who runs the farm, usually doing at least some of the physical work him or herself.
• Share-cropper - A farmer who pays a share of the harvest to the landowner. Traditionally this was a crippling share, and mandated to be in cash crops such as tobacco or cotton.
• Annuals - Plants that sprout from seed, grow, flower, set seeds, and die all in one growing season.


World Agricultural History (10 minutes – Review)
Take this opportunity to insert world history lessons into a contemporary discussion about farming, food and sustainability. This can be a great opportunity to overlap stories/lessons about the beginning of many cultures and societies in relationship to farming and food production.
Discuss with students the different kinds of farming techniques that have been used by cultures around the world – rice paddies, vertical gardening, aquaculture, etc.
In the United States, industrial agriculture began roughly around the same time as the Industrial Revolution. Farmers found they could increase the amount of food they produced, and thus, the efficiency of their farms by using machinery. As time went on, other scientific discoveries made it possible to farm even more intensively. Farms grew much, much larger using technology to produce crops more cheaply and increase profits.  Small family farms began to disappear.
Local Farming Practices, Local Impacts  (10 minutes – Investigate)
After inserting some world history content into this lesson, investigate local farming practices in the region. What is the history of agriculture in the last 50 years around your school and what does the future hold? What has changed and what may have stayed the same?
Some discussion points to include:
  • Discuss some of the major problems associated with industrial and monoculture farming: disease and crop failure. (For example, the Irish Potato Famine happened because most people in Ireland grew only one type of potato. That potato became susceptible to a type of mold, which destroyed the entire country’s food supply.)
  • Increased dependence on pesticides.
  • Depletion of soil nutrients.
  • Soil, air, and water contamination from concentrated animal waste and dead animals.
  • Food production and delivery require a great deal of fossil fuel.
Farms contribute vast amounts of waste and water pollution every day. Unsustainable farming practices that include monoculture and chemical additives reduce soil quality and compromise food security nationwide.
Sustainable farming practices, however, are taking root. More farmers are using organic farming techniques that use no chemicals or pesticides in growing and maintaining their fields. Biodynamic and other techniques work with the natural processes of the land instead of against them, requiring more work at first, but receive greater benefits long term.
Activity: Community/Regional Almanac
Talk to students about almanacs, a tool that farmers have used for centuries to predict weather and other factors that will affect their crops growth. As a class, research regional factors found in the Farmer's Almanac to develop your own almanac based on your knowledge of the area.
This almanac from 1818 serves much the same purpose as an almanac that would be produced today.
Ask each student to fill out the following rubric and discuss as a class what kinds of predictions you made for the fall, summer and spring.
                  Spring                                           Summer                                          Fall Weather: Rainfall Sun Harvest Amount: Small Farms Today and in the Future (10 Minutes - Frame/ReFrame)
In this next step, discuss some major components of small farming operations. What types of farms are there anyway? Some major types include:
  • Poultry Farms
  • Dairy Farms – milk, cheese
  • Grains – corn, wheat, soy
  • Beef/Hog
  • Vegetable/Fruit Orchards
Some of the major components to starting a small farm include:
  • Land - One of the biggest barriers to starting a farm is obtaining an actual piece of land. One of the classic ways to find the land is to link up with your state’s FARMLINK program. These state-based offices facilitate the transition of land between generations of farmers and ranchers, keeping track of people who have land and are ready to pass it down to new farmers who don’t have land.
  • What to Grow - Most growers tend to raise annuals (a crop that is grown once a season), as opposed to perennials (crops that take several seasons to grow, or grow every year), because they do not have to make such a long-term investment.
  • Buying Seeds - Gardeners and farmers have many seed vendor choices to choose from. A good starting place is the NCAT’s Organic Seed Suppliers:
  • Sustainable Pest Management- In managing insects, weeds, and disease, sustainable farming relies on practices that reduce chemicals and activities harmful to the environment.
  • Equipment Buying & Leasing – Your farm will require equipment such as tractors and tools.
  • Soil Fertility – A constant concern is soil fertility, adding nutrients like compost back into the soil.
  • Irrigation – Water supply is key to a successful farm. Irrigation brings fresh water into fields.
  • Livestock – Managing and raising animals.
Research regional or local farms in the area. If possible invite a local farmer to share his/her story of founding, operating or caring for a farm.
Consider regional elements like climate, soil and proximity to road infrastructure with your students. What kinds of farms make sense for the region? Visit the National Garden Associations website to find out which hardiness zone your region falls into:
Before beginning your design lab, talk about some recent agricultural projects featured in the 2010 National Design Triennial that are using new technologies and community-based design to revolutionize how urban centers grow food.
  • Eco-Laboratory - Increasing food production without negatively impacting the environment is at the heart of vertical farming, a new approach to fresh-food distribution for urban centers. A vertical farm grows food crops within the controlled environment of a multistory building. One of the pioneers of the vertical-farming concept is Dickson Despommier, a microbiologist and ecologist at Columbia University’s School of Public Health. Growing food inside using technologies like hydroponics and aeroponics allows plants to grow without soil, using a liquid nutrient and mist to fertilize crops. This kind of indoor farming allows crops to be grown year round and organically. Benefits include the elimination of agricultural runoff, reduction of infectious diseases, convertion of black and gray water into potable water, restoration of farmland to a natural landscape, and reduction of fossil-fuel use by reducing farm equipment and food shipping, to name just a few. Despommier is developing a vertical farm and community called the Eco-Laboratory a program that merges a neighborhood market, dwelling units, a vocational training facility, and a sustainability educational center for the public into a financially viable downtown residential development.
  • Viet Village Urban Farm is an urban farming project located in New Orleans East, an area hard hit by Hurricane Katrina. The location is in the northeast corner of the city. The new farm will use sustainable irrigation techniques that require little or no electricity to pump and filter water used in the fields. Locally-grown organic crops will be sold in a new on-site farmer’s market that will accommodate the estimated 3,000 Saturday shoppers who used to buy foods before Hurricane Katrina hit.
Small Farm Lab: Part One (20 Minutes – Generate)
Divide students into design teams. Challenge each team to design a sustainable farm that could be found somewhere in the region. Use the Viet Farm as an example to guide students. Encourage diversity and multiple uses of both land and the nearby community.
Viet Village Urban Farm Stats: The site is 20 acres. 8 acres will be divided into rental plots for gardening. 4 acres will be used for free-ranged chickens and goats. 2 acres for a water-retaining pond for irrigation. 1 acre for recycling of organic wastes and composting. 3 acres for parking, greenhouse, storage, and processing. 2 remaining acres will be absorbed by paths in and around the farm. The hope is to develop a track of land next to the farm for a open market which will hold up to 150 vendors. At the new market, local restaurants perform cooking demonstrations of their specialty dishes with ingredients purchased from the market's vendors.
Each team will be assigned a different kind of crop focus – but each team can add more options to his or her design. Encourage each team to come up with an overall concept design, as well as a sketch of the farm’s fields, buildings and water supply.
  • Dairy Farm
  • Grains – Buckwheat
  • Orchard – Apples and Peaches
  • Vegetable Farm – Broccoli, Peppers and Eggplant
Ask students to think about the design examples from the Triennial and how they can adapt their farms to an urban environment. If time allows, encourage each student or team to develop a way to get their food to people in a nearby town or city. If appropriate, ask each student to integrate sustainable technologies like renewable energy systems into their farm designs.
Small Farm Lab: Part Two (20 Minutes - Edit and Develop)
Challenge each team to make a model or poster of their newly design farm. Each team must explain how their farm addresses environmental concerns that contribute to water and soil quality. How does their farm provide a more sustainable way of working with the land?
Finally present your new farm designs to the class. (Share and Evaluate) Discuss how each small farm could fit into the local landscape. Talk about a strategy to connect your school to local farms.


Reflection Questions
  • Where in your neighborhood would an organic communal farm be accessible to the largest number of people?
  • Based on what you've learned today, what are the most important factors to consider in designing a farm?

Enrichment Extension Activities

Differentiation for Elementary School:
  • Visit a local sustainable farm. Ask the farm owner to speak to your group about what makes their farm sustainable. They can speak about seed buying, pest management, irrigation and/or soil fertility.
  • Students can use this real-world knowledge to design their own sustainable dream farm.  Encourage out-of-the-box thinking. The design can be imaginative, and not necessarily feasible.
Differentiation for High School:
  • As a final step in the design process, students can generate a simplified version of one or two aspects of their farm design for the school. They can present their ideas to the school administration. If possible, the students can implement one of their ideas on site, with permission from the administration.

Related Files

  1. This is perfect for the gardening and nutrition program for middle school kids this summer! Thanks for sharing, the resource links are awesome.

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