Picture Books and Primary Sources: Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices by Lindsay H. Metcalf

Farmers Unite

Farmers Unite

Occasionally a historically based picture book slips by me. Farmers Unite! Planting a Protest for Fair Prices was one such books. But then the author, Lindsay Metcalf, spoke at our state conference. When she shared her book, one librarian after another couldn’t wait to read it. I wanted to read it too. I also wanted to see what related primary sources I could find.

Farmers Unite focuses on the American Agricultural Movement. The brunt of the story highlights farmers from across the country who, in 1979, descended on Washington, D.C., in a Tractorcade to sway the government in supporting American farmers.

Identifying Related Primary Sources

American Agriculture Movement 'Tractorcade' on National Mall

American Agriculture Movement ‘Tractorcade’ on National Mall

I was initially worried about finding related primary sources. Items created in 1979 would still be protected by copyright. While fair use may apply, simply finding the items could have been a challenge. One of my favorite sources yielded great results though. The Smithsonian Learning Lab has a number of items. The National Museum of American History has a number of buttons worn by protesting farmers. Photos from their time in D.C. are held by the Smithsonian Office of Public Affairs. All of these items are available digitally.

Lindsay Metcalf also provided primary sources related to the book on her website. One link brings views to a public library in Kansas that houses interviews with farmers who participated in the Tractorcade. Another link leads to an even more expansive set of photographs held by the Smithsonian.

There are likely other sources of related primary sources online. As I search for items, I’m also considering what items I may use with students. During my search, I was seeing a connection with the buttons. Their variety and uniqueness not only gave me an idea about how to use them, I also felt they would be engaging items for students to work with.

Building Foundational Knowledge through a Picture Book

With this activity, begin the learning with the picture book. The story is expansive and covers many years. Consider focusing students’ reading of the book. Ask them to read through the lens of determining how people in the book would identify themselves. Students may identify Washington, D.C., residents, police officers, protestors, and others.

Focus students’ attention on the protestors. Ask students how they may identify themselves. A second read of Metcalf’s book may help students focus their attention on the farmers in the story. Students may give a few answers. The most likely are describing this group as farmers and protestors. They may also identify them as coming from outside of the D.C. area or living in rural areas. Given the photos in the story, students may also describe them as people who know how to drive tractors. Accept all reasonable responses.

Expanding on Knowledge through Primary Sources

Human Rights for Farmers Protest Pin

Human Rights for Farmers Protest Pin

Take student responses to the last question and build on it. Provide students with photos of buttons worn by these same individuals that they just identified. I’ve created a curated set of primary sources with several of these buttons. This activity can be done collaboratively as a whole class or as small groups. 

Ask students to view the buttons through a lens of identity. You may ask, “If a person chooses to put on this button, how are they wanting others to see them? How are they viewing the situation that you read about in the book?”

The buttons all have a common theme of speaking about the Tractorcade in 1979 in Washington, D.C., but they also present the protest and what instigated the protest differently. Challenge students to share specific labels or short phrases to share how the person wearing the button wanted to be seen and how they wanted others involved or the situation leading to the protest to be seen. Using a graphic organizer may help.

For example, one button reads, “Human Rights for Farmers Too.” Students may share that the person who wore this button wanted to be seen and treated as a human with certain rights. Students may also identify others indirectly referred to in this button as those who weren’t treating farmers humanely. Ask students who those people could be. Students can draw ideas from the picture book. The president and others in the government or D.C. residents who didn’t want the protestors in the city may be some suggestions from students.

Other buttons look at identities around war, prisons, religion, and others. Encourage students to focus on emotions implied within the buttons. This may be another way to help students interpret how those who wore the buttons wanted to be seen.

Growing Ideas around Identity of Groups

Conclude the activity by comparing the initial ideas around identity from reading the picture book and those ideas that came from analyzing the buttons. The identity of these farmers and protestors is more complex than students may initially think. 

After working collaboratively, a short exit slip can gather individual students’ thinking. Ask: After exploring individual items worn by some in this protest, how would you describe the people that took part in it and why?


Author: Tom Bober

Tom Bober is a school librarian at RM Captain Elementary, 2018 Library Journal Mover and Shaker, former Teacher in Residence at the Library of Congress, and author of the upcoming book Elementary Educator’s Guide to Primary Sources: Strategies for Teaching. He writes the Picture Books and Primary Sources posts for AASL’s KQ blog and has written articles for several publications. Tom also presents at conferences, runs workshops, and gives webinars to promote the use primary sources in student learning. He began his career as an elementary classroom teacher, was also an educational technologist, and has spent the last nine years as a school librarian.

Categories: Blog Topics, Collection Development, Student Engagement/ Teaching Models

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