Brian Ted Jones is director of education for Kirkpatrick Foundation. Data on farm employment is from census records accessed through the Oklahoma Department of Libraries.
Since 1990, the number of agricultural jobs in Oklahoma has declined by 77 percent, according to figures from the U.S. Census. This period of employment decline in the farming and ranching industry—once a pillar of the state’s job market—coincides with the expansion of corporate-industrial agriculture that began with the legalization of corporate agriculture in 1969 and accelerated with the arrival of concentrated swine and poultry production in the early 1990s.
Oklahoma is currently engaged in a heated debate over agriculture policy, as voters consider State Question 777, a controversial amendment to the state’s constitution that would provide members of the agriculture industry with a private right of action to challenge laws that restrict their technology and production practices. As director of education for Kirkpatrick Foundation, I’ve spent the last few months exploring the potential impact of SQ 777 on Oklahoma, which has led me to a deep study of Oklahoma’s agricultural economy going back to the territorial period.
My most remarkable finding has been the precipitous decline in agricultural employment between the years 1990 and 2000. During that single decade, the number of hired farm workers in Oklahoma fell 72 percent—from 49,681 to 13,721. (“Hired farm workers” make up one-third of the agricultural work force; the other two-thirds are self-employed farm operators and their family members.)
The magnitude of that decline comes into further relief when one compares this loss in hired farm jobs to the loss in the total number of subsistence farmers—tenant farmers and sharecroppers—during the years 1930-1940, when the Depression and Dust Bowl were in full force. The 1930 census reported the total number of subsistence farmers in Oklahoma at 146,384. By 1940, that number had shrunk to 102,773—a contraction of 29.8 percent.
Put another way, Oklahoma lost a greater percentage of middle-class agriculture jobs during the 1990s than during the Dust Bowl.
What could account for this decline? To answer that question, it’s necessary to look at long-term trends in the state’s agricultural job market. In the early decades of state history, the number of Oklahoma subsistence farmers grew steadily. There were 47,250 tenant farmers counted by the 1900 census; the number boomed to 104,137 ten years later, slightly declined to 97,836 in 1920, and reached a peak of 125,329 in 1930.
From 1935 on, though, the category of “hired farm workers” replaced subsistence farmers as the key data point in measuring agricultural employment; and from 1935 to 1969, the number of hired farm workers in Oklahoma rose from 31,444 to 86,874.
“Oklahoma lost a greater percentage of middle-class agriculture jobs during the 1990s than during the Dust Bowl.”
That trend of steady growth ended in 1969, the year the state Supreme Court decided LeForce v. Bullard, which overruled a longstanding consensus in Oklahoma government that the Constitution prohibited corporations from engaging in the agricultural trade.
From 1969 to 1990, the number of hired farm workers fell by 42.8 percent. Over 21 years, that’s a loss of 4.85 agriculture jobs a day.
But that decline is dwarfed by what happened between 1990 and 2000, following amendments to the state’s corporate farming code enacted in 1991, which allowed large-scale industrial swine and poultry production to do business in Oklahoma. During that ten-year period, Oklahoma lost 9.85 agriculture jobs a day.
These amendments had other profound and measurable effects on the Oklahoma agricultural economy, most strikingly in the Oklahoma hog industry.
According to figures from the USDA Census of Agriculture, the number of hogs produced in Oklahoma skyrocketed after these amendments, going from 260,682 head in 1992 to 2,304,749 in 2012. That’s an increase of 784 percent over two decades, and in 2016 dollars, that’s an increase in total value from $19.7 million to $174 million.
This dramatic upswing in hog production accompanied two other trends: greater consolidation of hog-based earnings, and a massive decline in the number of individual hog farms statewide.
In 1992, the top 0.35 percent of the state’s industry produced and sold 37 percent of the state’s hogs. By 2012, the top 1.69 percent produced and sold 94 percent. During this same time, the total number of Oklahoma hog farms shrank by 43 percent .
Finally, agriculture’s contribution to the state’s gross domestic product deteriorated during this same period of time. In the early 90s the agricultural sector accounted for 10 percent of state GDP, according to a 1993 study produced by Oklahoma State University, the state Department of Agriculture, and various industry groups. Today agriculture accounts for 2 percent of state GDP, up from 1.1 percent in 2015, according to a May 2016 economic indicators report from the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission,
Whatever arguments might be raised in support of industrialization and corporate consolidation in the Oklahoma agriculture industry, those arguments cannot rest on the premise that corporatization means more jobs, a broader share of earnings, or greater contribution to state GDP. A quarter-century of evidence compels the exact opposite conclusion.
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