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Food for Thought Lesson Plans

Von Thunen in Minnesota

Grade Level

Grades 9-12


Von Thunen's land use model is an agricultural land use model that is abstract for many students. Putting the model into practice is what this lesson attempts to accomplish by analyzing where products are grown in relation to markets.


Two 50-minute class periods

  • Market: A gathering of people for the sale and purchase of agricultural products.
  • Market Gardening: High bulk type of agricultural products such as fruits and vegetables.
  • Dairy: The storage, processing, and distribution of products of milk from cows or other animals.
  • Livestock: Farm animals raised for consumption or monetary value.
  • Commercial Grain: The production of grain products usually on a large scale.
  • Ranching: Larger type of farm specializing in farm animals for breeding and sale.
Background—Agricultural Connections* (should align with NALOs selected for this lesson)

Often students wonder why they need to learn geographic models, especially those that were created in the 1800's. Applying models to modern day reality is one way to have students test a model. Students will need to be reminded that models are never exact in the real world but do give us guidelines to help explain the spatial patterns that are observed. This particular lesson helps students to better understand the von Thunen model using the location of production of Minnesota agricultural products.

Information on the von Thunen model can be found on the Teacher Background Information document.

Interest Approach

Ask students to recall what they ate for breakfast, lunch, a snack, etc., in the past few hours. Post the question to the students: Where was this food grown? How far did the food have to travel to get to the location where you purchased and/or consumed it? What impact does this have on the price you paid for the food? How about on the profit that the farmer or grower made on the food product?

Inform students that today they are going to look at a model developed by Johann Heinrich von Thunen over 200 years ago. The model describes an "ideal state" that revolves around farming practices and focuses on a plan which would make farming as profitable as possible. The class will investigate the model and see if it applies to modern agriculture and farming in Minnesota.

Activity 1: Von Thunen Model Introduction
  1. Begin by having students read the Von Thunen Reading and Activity. They can work in groups or independently to fill in the blanks on the von Thunen activity.
    Dairy cattle
    Beef cattle
    Feed grains
    Field corn
  2. To assist students in understanding the von Thunen model have them reflect on what they read. Form students into groups of 3 or 4. Have students go through two rounds of discussion:
    1. During Round 1, each member of the group shares one thing that they've noticed about the von Thunen model.
    2. During Round 2, each member of the group shares one question they have about the von Thunen model.
  3. Ask for volunteers to share any of the observations or questions they discussed in their small groups with the whole class. You could also review the answers to the activity (see key above). Students can discuss if they agree with all of the answers and provide reasons why or why not.
Activity 2: Von Thunen Maps

Students will be using the maps indicated in the Materials section to determine the viability of von Thunen's model in the state of Minnesota today. Students will be producing a messy map. The von Thunen zones will overlap, and the zones should not be colored in but rather simply be outlines using different colors of pencil.

  1. Students will first need to identify and match the maps with the correct zone in von Thunen's model.
    Correct zones for maps:
  2. Using a star to represent the market, students need to put a star in the counties of Hennepin and Ramsey counties to indicate the largest cities, and hence, markets, in the state of Minnesota.
  3. Using a red colored pencil to indicate Zone 1 (Market Gardening), students should look at both the Nursery and Apple map to determine where the market gardening zone is. Students should circle the surrounding seven county area outside of Hennepin and Ramsey counties.
  4. Using an orange colored pencil, students should look at the Dairy Cows map to determine where the dairy zone is in the state of Minnesota. Students will see this zone centered around the central part of the state including Stearns County.
  5. Using a yellow colored pencil for Zone 3 (Livestock Fattening), students will be looking at two maps to determine a zone in Minnesota. They will look at Beef Cattle and Hogs and Pigs. This circle will be centered in Central Minnesota and extending southward into South Central Minnesota.
  6. Using a green colored pencil for Zone 4 (Commercial Grain), students will be looking at three different maps to determine that zone in Minnesota. They will notice that wheat is located in Northwestern Minnesota, whereas corn and soybeans are located in West Central and Southern Minnesota.
  7. Using a blue colored pencil for Zone 5 (Livestock Ranching), students will be looking at where the sheep and lambs are grown. Sheep are primarily raised for wool production even though more consumers are preferring sheep as a meat source. Livestock Ranching is located in the far Southwestern portion of the state.
  8. Using a brown or black colored pencil (non-Agricultural), students will be looking at the Minnesota Land Use map to determine where very little agriculture is produced in the state of Minnesota. They should circle the three northeastern counties of St. Louis, Lake, and Cook counties.
  9. Lastly, the students will need to look at the Transportation Highway Map of Minnesota, drawing in the main interstates in the state.
  10. Students should answer the following question: "Does the von Thunen agricultural land model hold up in the state of Minnesota?" Students should be asking whether or not Zone 1 is closer to the market than Zone 2. Is Zone 2 closer than Zone 3, and so on.

Correct Answer and Explanation: Based on zones extending away from the Twin Cities area, many zones do follow the model. This is because farmers want to maximize profits and to do that, they can reduce transportation costs. The market gardening area is right around the Twin Cities area with the concentration of apple orchards and nursery products. Extending upwards northwest of Zone 1 is Zone 2 along Interstate 94 is the dairy region along with an area in Southeastern Minnesota. Farther outward is Zone 3 with beef cattle and hogs and pigs extending to South Central Minnesota. Zone 4 for commercial grain is located in the far sections of Northwestern Minnesota and extends southwards to South Central Minnesota where the corn and soybeans are located. The ranching area is extended to the southwestern portion of the state with sheep and lambs located there. The last zone, Zone 6 (non-Agricultural) is located in the far sections of Northeastern Minnesota. Very little agriculture is produced in some of the biggest counties in Minnesota because of the shorter growing season with temperatures, poor soil quality, and forested terrain found in this area. Using time as a factor in transportation, the zones do hold up in the state.

Local Flavor

Students can find local agriculture around their homes or school taking pictures of the types of agricultural practices. Students should match up the type of products grown around their home or school to the zone in von Thunen. Many students around the Twin Cities will find market gardening activities whereas students in the out-state regions of Minnesota will find the rest of the zones.

Did you know? (Ag Facts)
  • Agriculture is Minnesota's #1 industry with over $17 billion worth of agricultural products produced and sold (U.S. Department of Agriculture).
  • Minnesota ranks as the fifth highest state in agricultural production in the United States.
Minnesota Academic Standards
Social Studies - Geography Apply geographic models to explain the location of economic activities and land use patterns in the United States and the world. Identify the primary factors influencing the regional pattern of economic activities in the United States and the world. Describe patterns of production and consumption of agricultural commodities that are traded among nations.