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Food for Thought Lesson Plans

Agricultural Imports – Exports and the Minnesota Connection

Grade Level

Grades 6-8


This lesson investigates the agricultural products and countries with which Minnesota and the U.S. trades and the methods of transporting the agricultural products.


Two or three 50-minute class periods

  • Import: bring goods or services into a country from abroad for sale
  • Export: send goods or services to another country for sale
  • Agricultural commodity: a raw or primary agricultural crop or livestock
  • Oilseed: seeds that yield vegetable oil, especially soybeans, but also sunflower, canola, flax
  • Multi-modal: a combination of several methods of transportation
  • USDA: United States Department of Agriculture
  • USMCA: United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement
  • CAFTA-DR: Dominican Republic-Central America Free Trade Agreement
  • EU: European Union is a political and economic union of 28 member states
Background—Agricultural Connections (Should align with NALOs selected for this lesson)

Farmers produce and sell an abundance of agricultural products through a variety of marketing channels (individual farm, cooperative farmers' organization, or corporate contract), but less frequently to the consumer at roadside stands or small retailers. Most agricultural products are sold to wholesalers who then sell them to processors to manufacture a variety of foods and goods. These products are then distributed by wholesalers and retailers to the consumer or exported to other countries. Agriculture is an interdependent global economic system. Farmers use large quantities of machinery, fertilizers, and other products from domestic as well as foreign producers. Countries rely on each other for a variety of agricultural products because of their varied climates, resources, and specializations. Supply and demand for agricultural products is greatly influenced by worldwide economic and environmental conditions. Agricultural trade continues to be one of the strongest components in the U.S. economy. The USDA reported that agricultural exports were $129.7 billion for 2016 representing 20 percent of total exports. The export markets are crucial to the economic well-being of U.S. farmers.

  • Twenty percent of U.S. agricultural production is exported with over half of many key commodities including wheat, soybeans, and cotton exported.
  • The top 10 exporting states are California, Iowa, Illinois, Texas, Minnesota, Nebraska, Kansas, Indiana, North Dakota and Missouri.
  • Four countries (Canada, Mexico, Japan and China) buy 50 percent of U.S. agricultural exports.
  • Agriculture creates jobs not only for farmers who purchase machinery, fertilizer, fuel and other products to produce crops and livestock, but also creates jobs in manufacturing, transportation, trade, finance, education, and retail to get the agricultural products to market. In fact, every $1 billion of U.S. agricultural exports in 2016 required 8000 jobs throughout the U.S. economy.

Because U.S. farm productivity outpaces consumer demand, international trade provides U.S. farmers with the opportunity to sell their commodities to other countries. International trade agreements (USMCA, CAFTA-DR) and bilateral trade agreements can open markets and facilitate the sale of agricultural products. Trade missions at national and state levels sponsored by governmental agencies also encourage trade. The USDA is an important sponsor of trade missions with which many state agencies participate, providing the states with necessary contacts for trade with other countries. States can also initiate their own trade missions.

In the 1980s, Minnesota Governor Rudy Perpich began and promoted trade missions and established the Minnesota Trade Office to facilitate the state's international trade. Minnesota has conducted trade missions to numerous countries multiple times including Canada, Mexico, Japan, South Korea, Germany, Norway and Sweden. In addition, every governor since Perpich has led a trade mission to China. The Minnesota Trade Office, importantly, is key to expanding Minnesota's trade, providing expertise without the expense and challenge of traveling to another country.

In June of 2019, the MN Department of Agriculture Commissioner and other Minnesota agriculture representatives conducted a trade mission to Columbia and Peru to expand MN exports to those countries:

Interest Approach - Engagement
Trading Game

Each student will be given 5 random colored slips of paper and told to collect 5 of one kind by exchanging or trading slips with other students. (The slips may be labeled with an agricultural product.) After 3 minutes of trading time discuss the game by asking the following questions:

  • What determined who you traded with? (proximity, friends, needed slip of paper) How would these characteristics apply to the real world? (Explain that proximity is access to neighbors and to others based on their geographic locations and physical characteristics. Also explain that friends are allies so you trade to support them, or for geopolitical reasons, or because you have trade agreements. Last, explain slips of paper as products or resources you need or desire from other countries.)
  • How would trade change if you were not allied with your neighbors? How would trade change with trade agreements? How would your trade change if there was a limited supply and a greater demand for one of the slips of paper?
  • How did you get to other students to trade? How would this apply to the real world? (different routes or transportation methods)
  • How would trade change if there were value to the slips with some more valuable or important than others? How would this affect supply and demand and the price?

If time allows you could lead your students through additional rounds of trading using different scenarios such as focusing on geography (you can only trade with classmates close to you), or strong trade agreements (use some sort of identifier to indicate a strong trade relationship. Examples could be names that start with the same letter, same color hair, etc. Students can only trade with other students that have this identifier.)

Activity 1: Agriculture imports and transportation methods
  1. Begin with the following statements:
    • You can't eat a chocolate chip cookie without importing agricultural products from other countries (chocolate and vanilla from Cote d'Ivoire and Madagascar).
    • The most popular fruit in the U.S. is not grown in this country (bananas from Guatemala).
    • Eating fresh fruit like blueberries and pineapples year-round would not be possible in the U.S. without imports (seasonal crops from Chile and Costa Rica).
    • Drinking coffee or tea would not be possible in the U.S. without imports (climatic differences from Colombia and China).
    Ask students: From where are these foods imported? What would happen if you didn't have these imported foods? What other foods are imported? Why do we import these foods since we have enough food in our country?
    Review the concept of import and why countries trade.
  2. Where are these foods from and how do we get them? Explain to students that they will work with a partner to map the import countries by labeling the countries and their products on a world map (any accurate world map is acceptable). Students will use the website to gather information or it will be provided on the chart, "Import Countries". "Import Countries" (2017)
    Agricultural Products
    Mexico, Chile, Guatemala, Costa Rica, China, Peru, Canada, Brazil
    Mexico, Canada, China, Peru, Spain, Guatemala, Netherlands
    Canada, China, India, Chile, Indonesia, Thailand, Vietnam
    Colombia, Brazil, Vietnam, Guatemala, Indonesia, Honduras, Canada
    China, Canada, Argentina, India
    Madagascar, Vietnam, Indonesia, India, China, Brazil, Mexico, Spain
    Tree Nuts
    Vietnam, Mexico, India, Canada, Thailand, Philippines, China, Spain
    Cote d'Ivoire, Ghana, Indonesia, Ecuador
    Canada, Mexico, Belgium, Germany, Switzerland, Poland, Italy
    Italy, New Zealand, France, Ireland, Canada, Spain, Netherlands
    Canada, Mexico, Thailand, Italy, Germany, India, China, France
    Mexico, Canada, Brazil, China, Germany, Argentina, Philippines
    The imported agricultural products represent 100 percent of U.S. coffee, cocoa, tea, and spices; 90 percent of our fish and shellfish; 50 percent of our fruits; 30 percent of our sugars; and 20 percent of our vegetables.

    Pose questions:
    • What foods are we importing?
    • How would our diet change without these imported agricultural products?
    • What patterns do you notice about the origin and distribution of the imported foods?
    • Why do we import from some countries more than other countries?
    • What questions arise looking at the distribution map?
  3. How do agricultural products get here? They come to a port using one or more methods of transportation. Explain the methods of transportation and examine the chart summarizing them.
    • Airport (plane): Air is the fastest and by far the most expensive, but valuable for perishable goods and flowers
    • Seaport (ship and barge): Ships alone carry 90 percent of global trade because the expense of shipping is reduced with larger quantities. Barges carry more and carry cheaper than a truck or train. But the barge is limited to navigable waterways and weather conditions.
    • In-Land port (truck and train): Railroad is the most efficient land transportation. (One train can transport the equivalent goods of 400 trucks.) Truck has size & weight restrictions as well as weather and traffic concerns but is flexible with door to door delivery including to rural areas.
    • Multi-modal is a combination of several methods of transportation that can reduce time and distance to port, increase efficiency, and go anywhere.
    Thus, U.S. agricultural products tend to be shipped by rail, barge, and truck or a combination of the three (multi-modal). When U.S. agricultural products are shipped to a port, a barge or train are used because they can hold a larger quantity and the cost is cheaper than a truck. Transportation of agricultural products overseas tends to be by ship using cargo containers, but air transportation is not used because of the huge expense and limited space. (Compare the loads of various transportation methods from the chart, "Performance Comparison for Selected Freight Modes", Geography of Transport Systems by Dr. Jean-Paul Rodrigue at Methods of Transportation
    Faster Time
    Cheaper Cost
    < 250 miles
    > 250 miles
    Oversize /Heavy Loads
    Special Require-ments*
    Cross Borders
    Travel Oversea
    Environ. Friendly+

    * Special Requirements includes refrigeration and hazmat protection
    + Environmentally Friendly includes less fuel usage and fewer pollutants
    ~ MM is used as an abbreviation for Multi-Modal

    Ask students: Which mode of transportation tends to be the fastest? The cheapest? Examine the chart asking how would we get fruit from Mexico here? How would we get nuts from Vietnam here? Why is a particular mode of transportation selected? Determination is based on urgency, cost, distance, size & weight (machinery, bulk), value of goods, and environmentally friendly.
  4. Complete "Minnesota Connections: Imports are Everywhere!" using an atlas. Also identify the transportation methods that each agricultural product would use to arrive in Minnesota. Discuss the selected transportation methods for each agricultural product as a class.
  5. Students complete a 3-2-1 assessment by recording 3 imported agricultural products, 2 countries from which we import, and 1 reason that explains the value of international trade.
Activity 2: Exporting agricultural products
  1. Begin class by having students predict 3 agricultural products that Minnesota exports and 3 exporting countries. Next, students share with a partner reasons for the predictions and then the class as a think-pair-share. Last, discuss: What is an export? Why do we export?
  2. Students complete the Anticipation Guide with Agree/Disagree statements to respond before reading "Minnesota Agricultural Profile". The teacher may discuss the responses as a class or in small groups to activate students' prior knowledge and to facilitate their reasoning. In addition, students may respond to and discuss the statements as a class or in small groups after reading. Anticipatory Guide
    Minnesota ranks fifth for total agricultural production in the U.S. and fifth largest agricultural exporting state in the U.S.
    Minnesota's top 5 export countries are China, Canada, Mexico, Japan, and South Korea
    Minnesota's top 3 exported agricultural commodities are corn, beef, dairy
    False (soybeans, corn, pork)
    Livestock is a greater source of income than crops in Minnesota
    Minnesota is the #1 producer of sugar beets and turkeys in the U.S.
    Half of Minnesota is farmland.
    Agricultural exports are one-tenth of Minnesota's total exports
    False (⅓)
  3. Minnesota's top 5 counties in agricultural production are Stearns, Renville, Martin, Polk and Redwood. Using various Food for Thought maps, students will answer and then discuss the following questions: Why are they the top 5 counties? What are their major products? What geographic characteristics support the farmers? Why might they export some of their agricultural products? What crop or livestock should Minnesota farmers in your county grow or raise?
  4. Ask students: How do you think Minnesota's agricultural exports and destinations compare to those of the U.S.? Give students a world map, atlas and the "Export Countries" chart. On the world map, identify and locate the markets for the U.S.'s agricultural products and the type of agricultural products exported to each country. Students will use the website to gather information or it will be provided on the chart, "Export Countries".
  5. "Export Countries" (2017)
    Agricultural Products
    China, European Union, Mexico, Egypt, Argentina, Japan, Indonesia
    Mexico, Japan, Colombia, South Korea, Peru, Canada, Taiwan
    Tree Nuts*
    Canada, India, Vietnam, China, Japan, Mexico, Turkey, Italy
    Japan, South Korea, Mexico, Canada, Taiwan, Netherlands, Philippines
    Japan, Mexico, South Korea, China, Canada, Colombia, Australia
    Mexico, Philippines, Japan, Nigeria, Indonesia, South Korea, Egypt
    Vietnam, Pakistan, China, Turkey, Indonesia, India, Bangladesh

    *Tree Nuts include almonds, hazelnuts, macadamia nuts, pecans, pistachios, and walnuts, which are differentiated in the export data but collapsed for this chart

    Alternatively, students may make a Venn diagram comparing top U.S. and Minnesota exported agricultural products and a second Venn diagram comparing top U.S. and Minnesota export countries. Students would use the "Minnesota Agricultural Profile" for Minnesota's data and "Top U.S. Agricultural Exports in 2017" for the second Venn diagram. The top U.S. agricultural export destinations in 2017 were: Canada, China, Mexico, Japan, EU, South Korea, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Indonesia, Philippines, Vietnam, Colombia, Thailand, Turkey and India.

    The percentages of agricultural products the U.S. exports are: soybeans 50 percent; corn 20 percent; tree nuts 50 percent-75 percent (based on type of nut); beef 10 percent; pork 20 percent; wheat 46 percent; and cotton 75 percent. The U.S. also exports 15 percent of its dairy and 50 percent of its rice.

    Pose questions:
    • Why does the U.S. export the percentages of agricultural products that it does? What are the benefits? What disadvantages could occur?
    • Compare the export map with the import map and ask: What patterns do you notice? Are the maps of U.S. imports and exports similar? Are they different?
    • How does the map of U.S. exports and export countries reflect Minnesota's trading partners? Why would they be similar? Why would they be different?
    • How would Minnesota ship its agricultural products? Discuss as a class how the agricultural products would be shipped to other countries.
    • Highlight that Canada, Mexico, Japan and China are Minnesota's largest trading partners and Indonesia, Vietnam and the Philippines are important new markets. Ask students to hypothesize why extensive trade occurs with these countries. Why would China buy U.S. soybeans? Why would Japan buy U.S. beef? Why would Vietnam buy U.S. cotton? (Conditions of climate, terrain, population, and available land all have a role in the need to purchase agricultural products.)
    • What factors would change U.S. agricultural exports to those countries? (According to the USDA, factors that affect global trade include: market growth and stability reflected in changes in world population, economic growth, or income; global supplies and prices, changes in exchange rates, government support for agricultural policies, and trade protections.) How would the U.S. change if its exports were reduced by half? How would Minnesota change if it did not export agricultural products to other countries?
  6. Review again the concepts of import, export and international trade.
    Students will complete a quick write as an assessment. In a brief paragraph, students will explain international trade and how it benefits Minnesota. When completed, students will participate in a snowball! Students put their name on the paper, gather in two equal groups on either side of the room, crumble their paper and toss it to the other side. A person on the other side picks up the paper, records a response to the original statement and signs his/her name before tossing the paper back to the original owner who will have the opportunity to record a response before handing it in.
Local Flavor
  • The Trump administration in 2018 placed tariffs (taxes on certain imports) on steel and aluminum imported into the U.S. This was meant to increase the price of imported goods so more U.S.-made goods would be purchased because of less cost. However, the affected countries reacted by placing tariffs on some U.S. goods and agricultural products. The U.S. responded by extending its tariffs to other products resulting in additional counter-measures by affected countries. The tariffs have applied most directly to China, with which the U.S. has an imbalance of trade, but other countries including Canada, Mexico, and the EU have been affected. Countries have felt the effects of tariffs, but more importantly farmers, businesses, and consumers have been affected.
  • Students will work with a partner to Investigate the trade war answering the question: How has the trade war affected Minnesota farmers and communities? Students will conduct interviews with at least one person involved directly or indirectly in agriculture. Students will also use several websites to collect information and data, organize the information in a graphic organizer such as a concept map, and reach conclusions that address the additional questions. Finally, students will create an infographic summarizing their response to the question: How has the trade war affected Minnesota farmers and communities? Students may make presentations, participate in a gallery walk, or have a community discussion.

Additional questions that should be addressed in the infographic include:

  • Why are tariffs imposed? What is the effect of tariffs?
  • Who benefits from tariffs? Who is harmed by tariffs?
  • What has been the effects of tariffs on Minnesota farmers, businesses, and consumers?
  • Why are tariffs supported in the U.S. as a good policy? Why are tariffs not supported?
  • What do you think should be done in your community or county to deal with the effects of tariffs?
Supporting Resources
Did you know? (Ag Facts)
  • The farmers' and ranchers' share of the U.S. retail food dollar in 2017 was only 14 cents per dollar, which is the lowest level since records were begun in 1993.
  • U.S. agricultural production has surpassed domestic demand, so farmers and agricultural businesses export agricultural products to maintain prices and revenue.
  • U.S. agricultural exports have grown from $56 billion in 1995 to $140 billion in 2017.
  • The USDA regulates agricultural imports and exports.
  • U.S. agricultural imports tripled in value from $39 billion to $115 billion between 2000 and 2016. Fruits, vegetables and tree nuts were 50 percent of U.S. agricultural imports and sugar and tropical products (coffee, cocoa, rubber) were 20 percent of U.S. agriculture imports.
  • Canada and Mexico are the largest source of imported agricultural products including fruits, vegetables, red meats and snacks and the EU is a close 3rd with fruits and vegetables. The South American countries of Brazil, Chile and Colombia provide fruits, vegetables, sugar and tropical plants (coffee, spices).
  • U.S. agricultural exports go to Canada, Mexico, EU, Japan, China. Categorizing, 34 percent of exports go to East Asia (China, Japan, South Korea) and 28 percent to Canada and Mexico. The EU and SE Asia (Philippines, Vietnam, Indonesia) are also important countries for U.S. agricultural exports.
  • The primary methods of moving U.S. agricultural products are roads, rails, and rivers, which represents 30 percent of total U.S. transportation miles. Barges are used most often to move grain to ports for export while trucks are used domestically.
  • New Orleans exports more agricultural products than any other U.S. port. New Orleans, with over 72 million metric tons annually, imports and exports more agricultural products than second ranked New York City at 10 million metric tons annually.
Minnesota Academic Standards
Social Studies - Geography Create and use various kinds of maps, including overlaying thematic maps, of places in Minnesota; incorporate the "TODALSS" map basics, as well as points, lines and colored areas to display spatial information. Create and use various kinds of maps, including overlaying thematic maps, of places in the United States; incorporate the "TODALSS" map basics, as well as points, lines and colored areas to display spatial information. Obtain and analyze geographic information from a variety of print and electronic sources to investigate places or answer specific geographic questions; provide rationale for its use. Create and use various kinds of maps, including overlaying thematic maps, of places in the world; incorporate the "TODALSS" map basics, as well as points, lines and colored areas to display spatial information. Explain how the changing pattern of industrialization and trade between the United States, and Canada or Mexico, have resulted in close connections between the countries in terms of manufacturing, energy and finance. Describe the changing role of Latin America in global trade networks. Describe the role of Europe in the global economy today. Identify the characteristics of a market economy that exists in contemporary China; describe how China's changing economy has impacted the United States and the global economic system since 1970.

Social Studies - Economics Describe the movement of goods and services, resources and money through markets in a market-based economy. Describe how the interaction of buyers (through demand) and sellers (through supply) determines price in a market. Explain why trade is mutually beneficial to countries; define and apply absolute and comparative advantage with respect to international trade.

Social Studies - History Identify the major Minnesota political figures, ideas and industries that have shaped or continue to shape Minnesota and the United States today. (The United States in a New Global Age: 1980-present) Analyze the changing relations between the United States and other countries around the world in the beginning of the 21st century. (The United States in a New Global Age: 1980-present)

Common Core Connections
Grades 6-8 Literacy in History/Social Studies

Determine the central ideas or information of a primary or secondary source; provide an accurate summary of the source distinct from prior knowledge or opinions.

Integrate visual information (e.g., in charts, graphs, photographs, videos, or maps) with other information in print and digital texts.