Lesson Plans

Examining the Economics and Human Toll of Declining Industry

Cory Bidlingmaier, left, and Robert "Stretch" Hull maneuver calves in a pen during an auction. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Cory Bidlingmaier, left, and Robert "Stretch" Hull maneuver calves in a pen during an auction. Image by Mark Hoffman. United States, 2019.

Today’s Under-reported Fact:

Between January 1st and May 1st 2019, Wisconsin saw the loss of 302 dairy farms–this equates to about 2.5 dairy farms per day.


Students will be able to…

  • Discuss the current state of dairy farms in the mid-Western United States.
  • Describe the effects of trade and shifting economic models on mid-Western dairy farmers and their industry.
  • Investigate the idea of regional industry and how it affects the community at large if there are shifts in that industry.
  • Compare and contrast between reporting domestically and abroad.

Elementary Warm-up:

As a class, answer the following questions:

  1. Foods made from animal milk are called dairy products. What was the last dairy product you consumed?
  2. Can you name 5 dairy products?
  3. Where does dairy come from?
  4. What alternatives to dairy products have you heard of?
  5. Where is dairy produced?

Middle and High School Warm-up:

1. Watch this short video on auctioneers and their experiences selling dairy farms in Wisconsin.

2. Answer the following questions:

  • What do you think the auctioneers feel when they are helping to facilitate the sale of the equipment and the dairy cows from local farmers?
  • What are the misconceptions about the “farm to table” process of bringing dairy products and meat into people’s homes?
  • What is the meaning of the word empathy and how does it relate to the video?

Introducing the Reporting:

Activity 1. Dairy Industry Game

Play the Dairyland in Distress game individually or as a class. If playing as a whole class, ensure that everyone’s voice is heard throughout the process of playing the game. Pay attention to the details provided in the description boxes through each step of the simulation, as they will be important throughout this lesson.

Activity 2. Four Corners Story Exploration

1. Each of the four corners of your classroom are labeled with a topic having to do with the dairy industry:

  • Trade Wars
  • Corporatization of Agriculture
  • Mental Health 
  • Economic Models

Go to the corner with the topic you are most interested in. There should be at least four students in each corner. 

2. You will receive a story about your topic with specific instructions about what part of the article to read. In your group, read your story, silently or aloud to one another.

3. In your group, discuss the questions listed below for the topic area you chose.

4. Once you have finished reading and discussing, consider: How could you explain this story to your classmates? Write your group's answers to the following prompts on a piece of paper so you can share out to the classroom about what you have learned.

  • Summarize the reading in two sentences and share with the class.
  • Identify the three main points of the article and why they are important.
  • Select one interesting fact that the class may not know about your article.

Trade Wars:

Read the sections of this article underneath the following bolded headings: “Quantum change in dairy industry” and “Tariffs worsen crisis.” Once complete, discuss the following questions. 

  • What part of this article stood out the most to you? What surprised you the most?
  • What do you believe started the trade war that is affecting the dairy industry?
  • How do you believe that these tariffs on the dairy industry will affect your community in time?
  • What solutions do you believe could or should be implemented to rectify this problem?

Corporatization of Agriculture 

Read the sections of this article underneath the following bolded headings: “A system falling apart at the seams” and “Rural economy feels the strain.” Once complete, discuss the following questions. 

  • Compare and contrast rural and urban communities. What are the advantages and disadvantages of each space when it comes to dealing with the industry that provides the most jobs?
  • If small farms are squeezed out by more corporate farms, how will this affect the larger market? 
  • How do you believe all of this will effect these farming communities over time? How do you believe it will effect your own community over time?
  • What role do you think the government should have in regulating agriculture?
  • What would you define as fair treatment for dairy farmers and other people working in the agricultural industry?

Additional media

Use the following video as an additional resource to talk about the corporatization of the agriculture industry.


Mental Health:

Read the sections of this article underneath the following bolded headings: “More Wisconsin farmers are calling Farm Aid crisis line,” “Agency looks for ways to help farmers,” and “First stress, then stroke.” Once complete, discuss the following questions. 

  • Were you aware that this was an issue within the farming community? Why do you believe that this goes under-reported?
  • Do you believe that this part of the story is important for people to know when discussing the story at large?
  • Have you heard of other programs like this to support mental health of certain communities? How does mental health affect your community?
  • Have there ever been shifts in your community that have created an emotional impact on you or your larger community?

Economic Models:

Read the sections of this article underneath the following bolded headings: “We’ve been producing too much.” Once complete, discuss the following questions. 

  • After analyzing the text, how do you see the demographics of these farming communities continuing to change as time goes on if we continue on the current trend?
  • Think about the idea of today's cows becoming “hamburger” if they were producing at the same rate as they were 50 years ago. Can you think of any other industry that has advanced so much that they would not survive in present day standards of production?
  • Discuss and explain the economic model that led dairy farmers to produce too much milk. 


Discuss the following solutions for the dairy farm crisis found in this article. The questions provided can be used to facilitate or support the conversation. 

Solution #1: Implement a two-tier pricing system for milk products, allowing farmers to receive an extra $4 for every hundred pounds (about 12 gallons) of milk they produce a month, up to 1 million pounds.
Solution #2: Place dairy-product vending machines in every K-12 school and university in Wisconsin, with emphasis on providing multiple flavors of milk.
Solution #3: Create a cheese export program, where products are made in the U.S. specifically targeted for international audiences. 
Solution #4: Provide rural communities stronger access to internet services to connect to urban consumers who would engage with agritourism.

Discussion Questions:

1. What do you believe is the most effective short term solution?

2. What do you believe is the most effective long term solution?

3. Do you believe that there are other solutions that have not been explored?


Now that you have engaged with the above stories and understand more through participating in the activities and discussion questions, play the Dairyland in Distress game again. Note the differences in your understanding as you play the game, especially in terms of the predictability that you can now sense about how the game will ultimately end depending on the choices you make.

Extension Activities:

Option 1: Historical Research

Form small project groups, then, identify what kind of industry is or used to be present in your home community or state. Create a short presentation to share with the class based on the following questions. 

  • What did you find? 
  • Does it still exist in your community? 
  • Has it been moved from your community, and if so, where has it relocated in the country or even in the world? 
  • What kind of impact did it have on the region, the surrounding cities, or your community?

Option 2: Economic Discussion

Watch the following video and discuss the following questions.

Discussion Questions

  • What is NAFTA? 
  • How does NAFTA relate to the previous articles?
  • Do you believe that this type of trade agreement is helpful or hurtful to the countries that are involved?
  • Compare and contrast how the United States and other countries sustain their dairy industry. 


Now that you have a better understanding of this trade legislation, host a Model Congress in your class. Your job is to collaboratively compose a new or adapted version of a trade agreement you believe should be implemented at the national level. It is not necessary to take the position of any specific state; rather, your own analysis and understanding of the issue should drive the new trade document being drafted. 

At the end of the activity, there should be a rough draft of a trade agreement document that the students have general consensus upon. 

For more information on hosting a Model Congress, click here.

Option 3: Debate

Split the room into 2-sides. Assign each side one of the following positions.

A. We should do more to protect and stabilize the dairy industry within the United States, particularly in mid-Western states.

B. We should not do more to protect and stabilize the dairy industry within the United States. 

Each group should use facts from the articles to support their claims. Additional research should also be done before the debate begins so that students can cite evidence from multiple sources to support their claims. Likewise they should use their own opinions and understandings of the changing agricultural industry within the United States to inform their arguments.

At the end of the activity, a majority vote will be taken to decide whether the dairy industry should be supported in United States long term or not.

Option 4: Storytelling

Use the following story to discuss and assess different kinds of storytelling within the news. 

Juxtapose this story with the previous stories discussed in this lesson plan by using the following discussion questions. Write a one-page reflection after the conversation about how you will watch the news more thoughtfully moving forward. 

  • How do you understand the overall story differently reading a personal account of struggle from a small scale dairy farmer, as opposed to a story about trade agreements and the national implications of dairy farms slowly going out of business?
  • Does national news typically take on the form of personal narratives from those experiencing the story being reported, or does it offer an account of something that balances mutiple perspectives from different sources?
  • How does the structure of a personal narrative story look different from a data driven story?

Additional Resources:

1. Historical context: Use this resource if you want to explore the history of dairy farming early in the U.S., particularly in the context of the Milk Strikes during the Great Depression.

2. Global context: What affects industries around the world? Take a look at how international trade, shifting consumer demands, and other factors that shape the livelihoods of workers are playing out on a global scale.

Educator Notes: 

Common Core Standards:


Determine a central idea of a text and how it is conveyed through particular details; provide a summary of the text distinct from personal opinions or judgments.


Determine two or more central ideas in a text and analyze their development over the course of the text; provide an objective summary of the text.


Compare and contrast treatments of the same topic in several primary and secondary sources.

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