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Tenant Farming in Oklahoma

World War I

A horse stands in a yard with a ramshackle building on one side, a tree on the other, and debris in the foreground.

Barnyard of an Oklahoma tenant farmer (image courtesy of the Library of Congress).

Despite the protests of some, World War I did offer a brief period of relief for struggling farmers as prices increased due to wartime demand. Farmers and other workers were targeted with patriotic calls to support their nation through their labor and were urged to put aside their activism for the sake of the country. This period saw a lapse in union involvement, as there wasn’t a pressing economic burden that needed addressing. A fundamental driver of labor reform is simple financial need, and farmers found themselves in a good position, if only temporarily.

This prosperity was not to last, however. In response to the high crop prices brought on by the war, many farmers greatly increased production, sometimes by purchasing expensive machinery on loan. This resulted in an excess crop supply, causing prices to plummet. This event would herald a period of deep economic hardship for farmers that would linger through the 1920s and 1930s, only ending with the rise of a new model of agriculture that made tenants unnecessary and pushed family farms out of business.

US Department of Labor poster with title 'Farm to Win Over There' and 'Join the US Boys Working Reserve Young men 16 to 21 The Army Behind the Army.' There is a silhouette of a farmer with a plow in front of building ruins and a cloud of smoke.

World War I posters directed at farmers and other workers, tying their work to the war effort (images courtesy of the Huntington Library and the Library of Congress, respectively).

US Department of the Interior poster that has an American flag and the text: To the Miner...to the miner let me say that he standeds where farmer does, the work of the world waits on him. If he slacks or fails armies and statesmen are helpless. He also is enlisted in the great service army.