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Tenant Farming in Oklahoma

Agricultural Unions

The Farmers’ Union is an example of a more generalized union that found great success by advocating for the practical needs of all farmers. Though it was founded in Texas in 1902, the Farmers’ Educational and Cooperative Union of America, commonly known as the Farmers’ Union, quickly made its way to the Oklahoma and Indian Territories. After a brief period of separation, the two branches united into one organization, first called the Indiahoma Farmers’ Union and eventually simply the Oklahoma Farmers’ Union.

This union was heavily modeled after the Farmers’ Alliance, with a primary focus on the establishment of cooperative businesses ranging from grain elevators and stores to insurance companies and newspapers. The business enterprises helped farmers escape the exploitative systems that trapped them in debt, while the union newspaper provided political content alongside practical farming tips.

Charter for the Farmers Educational and Co-Operative Union of America, Cleo, Oklahoma 1906

Indiahoma Farmers’ Union charter for a union chapter in Cleo, Oklahoma (M1989.011, Katie Edwards Bemo Mitchell Collection, OHS).

The Farmers’ Union advocated for small farm owners and tenants equally, recognizing that they shared many similar problems and could work together to improve their collective lot. They railed against the greed and exploitation of bankers and land speculators—enemies of both groups—and explicitly banned them from joining the organization.

Still, the Farmers’ Union remained largely apolitical in practice and kept their advocacy in the range of the current political and economic system. Whereas other unions argued for the end of landlordism and the redistribution of land, the Farmers’ Union provided economic support in the form of communal resources and a sense of camaraderie between small farm owners and tenants. This strategy proved fruitful, and the Farmers’ Union remains in operation today.

Frieght truck in front of a building with a sign, Farmers Union Elevator.

A Farmers’ Union grain elevator in Kansas (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Several white men stand in front of a storefront window with a sign 'Farmers Cooperative Union Association.'

Men stand in front of a Farmers’ Union office in Louisiana. A handwritten sign on the window says “We get our berries sold for 13 cents. Coop Auction” (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).