Path Home Shows 2009 Show Archive March 2009 Show 0913 The New Face of Ag

The New Face of Ag

The Oklahoma farmers are becoming more diverse and where they're farming is diversifying as well.
The New Face of Ag


Show Dates

Show 0913: The New Face of Ag

Air date: March 29, 2009



Rob:  Well the first decade of this century has been fraught with the seeds of change, and that has rippled into one of Oklahoma’s largest industries, agriculture.  Today, as part of our in-depth look at the changing face of our state’s agriculture sector, we look back at where we’ve been and where we’re going.  Joining me now is our Russ Jowell, who’s taking a look at it by the numbers.

Russ:  Well Rob, there’s no doubt the changes we’ve seen have been many and far reaching.  I think it would be safe to say that, we’ve kind of seen an hourglass effect take place; and what I mean by that is that, we’ve seen increases in small scale and large scale agriculture; but that middle class has really begun to shrink over these past few years.

Rob:  Now, I know you’ve brought some numbers with you that really demonstrate this.

Russ:  That’s right, Rob.  Every five years, the USDA conducts a comprehensive census of American agriculture.  The last one was taken in 2007.  And here’s what they found.  There was a three percent overall increase in the number of farms in Oklahoma between 2002 and 2007, but that increase came in small farms and big farms.  For instance, the number of farms under 180 acres increased by five percent; the number of farms over 2000 acres increased by ten percent; but the number of farms between 180 and 2000 acres actually dropped by about one percent.

Rob:  So if little farms are growing, but the mid-size farms are shrinking, what has that done to incomes?

Russ:  Well farms with sales of less than twenty-five hundred dollars each year increased by fifteen percent, while farms with sales between twenty-five hundred and fifty thousand dollars actually shrank by about eight percent.  But farms with sales over fifty thousand dollars each year grew by about eight percent.

Rob:  So if the big are just getting bigger, who actually owns these farms?

Russ:  Well increasingly, we’re seeing these large farms are incorporated.  They are often family run, but they’re listed as corporations or partnerships.  As you can see, there’s a fifty-eight percent increase in the number of corporate-owned farms, and a seventy-five percent increase in cooperative partnerships, in this latest Ag census.  But the number of family-owned farms actually dropped by about one percent.

Russ:  Well corporate or not, no one is making much of a living with sales of under twenty-five hundred dollars a year, and yet that has now become the largest category of Oklahoma farms.

Russ:  Rob, what we’re seeing is that agriculture is starting to become more of a part-time hobby for small to mid-size farmers, rather than a full-time job.  For instance, the number of people who claim farming as their primary occupation dropped by about twenty-one percent in five years; whereas, those who claim a primary occupation outside of farming, grew by about thirty-five percent.

Rob:  So let’s switch gears a little bit and talk about agriculture from a socioeconomic standpoint.  What are we seeing there; who’s doing it?

Russ:  Well there’s no doubt, the face of agriculture is going through some dramatic changes.  In fact, the census indicates a twenty-four percent increase in the number of women farmers in the past five years.  On top of that, the ethnicity of our farmers is also changing.  Between 2002 and 2007, there was a fifty-five percent increase in the number of American Indian farmers, a thirty-two percent increase in the number of Black farmers, and a three hundred seventy percent increase in Asian farmers.  And as we found out, not only are Oklahoma farmers more diverse, but where they’re farming is diversifying as well.

Russ:  On a bustling urban street in the heart of Oklahoma City, Tammy Steele and her friends are busy sowing the seeds of change.

Tammy Steele:  It’s an organization of opportunity.  It’s an organization that was founded, by myself, to help serve socially disadvantaged farmers.

Russ:  And it’s an organization known as the Oklahoma Women in Ag Association, a group whose mission is to bring new faces into the world of agriculture and bring the world of agriculture closer to Oklahoma’s communities.

Steele:  We’re making connections with store’s that’s next door to the market that we’ll be selling to them; restaurants right here in the local area, getting things to them to be able to serve to the community.

Russ:  Groups like the Women in Ag are becoming more and more common in our state.  As the economic realities of the 21st century become apparent, so will the new reality of where our food is grown and who is growing it.

Larry Sanders:  More than anything, what it reflects is the sector’s response to the environment around it.

Russ:  Larry Sanders is a professor of agricultural economics at Oklahoma State University, and says that over time, agriculture has always changed to meet the demands of the American public.

Sanders:  The public has come to want different things from agriculture.  So now it’s a much more complex choice set.  They want agriculture to provide safe food.  They want them to treat the environment right.  They want them to be competitive on a global situation.  They want to have a widely varied choice of food stuffs.

Russ:  And in Tammy’s case, she also hopes to provide those in underserved communities the chance to become successful in the world of agriculture.

Steele:  WIAA gives them an opportunity to be able to bring their skill set forth and be able to help someone else as well as supplement their incomes as well through different grant opportunities, or however we can help.

Russ:  And while Tammy’s group is all about helping others, she herself has managed to garner the support of Micah Anderson, market development coordinator for the Oklahoma Department of Agriculture.

Micah Anderson:  With the economy like it’s going right now, I think there is a lot of interest in people getting back to small farms and maybe cutting into some of their grocery bill by growing some of their own produce.

Sanders:  Many of you have probably heard the terminology “local vore,” as in herbivore; but “local vores” are people who are preferring to buy and eat local foods produced in the local area.

Russ:  And for those, like Tammy, bringing agriculture closer to the community also brings opportunities to serve closer to home.

Steele:  We’re trying to show that everyone, no matter if they have money, or no money, someone has something to give to this world, given the economic times that we’re in.

Rob:  So, Russ, with the growth of these new small urban farms, what are some of the challenges these new farmers are facing?

Russ:  Well, I think the biggest challenge they’re going to face is just the fact that they are within the city limits of a major city, and they’re going to have to contend with the ordinances and regulations of that city.  The second thing I think they’re going to face is the fact that they’re going to have very limited space, and they’re going to have to focus on high-yield crops, like tomatoes and other vegetables.  Commodity crops like wheat and corn that require hundreds of thousands of acres to be of any value are really out of the question for these people.

Rob:  Certainly, well interesting times out on the farm.  It’s a good story.

Russ:  Thank you.