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How was tenant farming in Oklahoma unusual?

Tenant farming in Oklahoma had some unique characteristics that made it different from tenant farming in other parts of the United States. Oklahoma was opened to white settlement through a series of land runs starting in 1889, and many of the early settlers came to the state to try their hand at farming. However, the land proved difficult to cultivate and farm successfully, leading to high rates of tenancy and unusual tenant arrangements.

High Rates of Tenancy

By the early 1900s, Oklahoma had some of the highest rates of tenant farming in the country. In 1910, nearly 52% of Oklahoma farms were operated by tenants, compared to 37% nationwide. The rate of tenancy was especially high in the eastern part of the state where farming was more feasible. For example, in some eastern counties up to 75% of farms were tenant-operated.

There were a few reasons for the high rate of tenancy:

  • The land allotted to settlers during the land runs was often of poor quality for farming. The soil was not very arable in many parts of Oklahoma, making it difficult for homesteaders to succeed as owner-operators.
  • Limited access to capital made it difficult for many settlers to purchase land or equipment needed for successful farming.
  • Fluctuating wheat prices and agricultural depressions in the late 1800s and early 1900s forced some owner-operators into tenancy.
  • Absentee land ownership was common, since much of the land was given away through land lotteries rather than sold.

As a result, the majority of Oklahoma farmers never became owner-operators but were forced into tenant arrangements in order to farm the land.

Cash Renting and Sharecropping

The two main types of tenant farming that emerged in Oklahoma were cash renting and sharecropping.

Cash renting involved the tenant paying a fixed cash payment to rent the land each year. This gave the tenant more freedom in decision-making regarding which crops to plant and how to manage operations. However, it also meant the tenant took on more financial risk.

Sharecropping involved the tenant and landowner sharing the crop as payment for use of the land. This arrangement meant less financial risk for the tenant but also less independence.

While cash renting and sharecropping existed in other parts of the country, what made Oklahoma unique was the incredibly high proportion of cash renting compared to sharecropping.

Nationwide, the majority of tenant farmers were sharecroppers. But in Oklahoma, most tenants were cash renters. Some key stats:

  • In 1910, nearly 60% of Oklahoma tenants were cash renters, compared to only 11% nationwide.
  • Conversely, only 25% of Oklahoma tenants were sharecroppers, versus 60% nationwide.

So while cash renting and sharecropping existed elsewhere, the dominance of cash renting made Oklahoma an outlier.

Reasons for Prevalence of Cash Renting

There are a few reasons why cash renting was much more common than sharecropping in Oklahoma:

  • Absentee ownership – With much of the land owned by absentee landlords, sharecropping arrangements were more difficult to enforce and monitor.
  • Native American lands – Cash renting was common on Native American-owned lands that were leased to white farmers.
  • Land quality – The poor soil quality made fixed cash payments less risky for landlords than sharecropping.
  • Settler preferences – Many settlers preferred the autonomy of cash renting over sharecropping.

Cash renting allowed tenants more independence over farming operations while also fitting the constraints of absentee owners and poor farmland. Sharecropping was still practiced, but cash renting better served the context of Oklahoma agriculture.

Third and Fourth Rent

Within cash renting arrangements, Oklahoma saw some unique practices emerge in response to the challenges tenants faced. One was the system of third and fourth rent.

With third rent, the tenant paid one-third of the crop at harvest time as rent. Fourth rent involved paying one-fourth of the crop.

Third and fourth rents were not necessarily unique to Oklahoma. But they became much more common than the traditional half rent (paying half the crop) seen elsewhere. Paying a third or fourth gave tenants a more favorable payment schedule and allowed them to keep more of their crop.

Again, this emerged as a response to the difficulties of tenant farming on marginal land in Oklahoma. The lower rents gave tenants a better chance of covering expenses and making a profit despite lower yields.

Truck Farming

Some Oklahoma tenants turned to truck farming as a way to make their operations profitable.

Truck farming involved cultivating fruits, vegetables, and other specialty crops to sell to markets and consumers in cities and towns. Common truck crops included tomatoes, cabbage, sweet potatoes, watermelons, and fruit.

This allowed tenants to earn cash income, pay their rent, and cover expenses despite the poorer quality land. Access to rail transport made it possible to ship perishable truck crops to population centers quickly.

Truck farming was not unique to Oklahoma. But it became an important livelihood strategy for tenants farming marginal land on which staple grain crops were less successful.

Tenant Farm Ownership

One of the starkest differences between tenant farming in Oklahoma and other states was the incredibly low rate of tenant farm ownership.

Nationwide, around 25% of tenant farmers owned some of the livestock or equipment on the farms they rented. But in Oklahoma, tenant ownership of any capital assets was extremely rare.

In 1910, only 3% of Oklahoma tenants owned any portion of the farm capital or livestock. The following table illustrates this discrepancy:

Year Oklahoma % Tenants Owning Livestock U.S. % Tenants Owning Livestock
1900 2.7% 23.5%
1910 3.0% 26.4%

This striking lack of capital ownership arose from the confluence of several factors:

  • Scarcity of capital – Most tenants lacked the resources to purchase livestock, equipment, etc. when establishing their farms.
  • Difficulty acquiring credit – Financial institutions were reluctant to lend to tenants.
  • Landlords maintained ownership – Landlords kept ownership of farm capital as added insurance on rent payments.
  • Instability of tenure – High turnover rates deterred investment in capital goods.

Inability to purchase even small amounts of capital made it much more difficult for tenants to improve their operations, transition to ownership, or exert influence over production decisions.

Farm Labor

The final unique characteristic of Oklahoma tenant farming pertained to farm labor.

In other parts of the country, large tenant farms often relied heavily on hired labor. But in Oklahoma, the vast majority of farm work was done by the tenant farmer and his family.

For example, in 1910:

  • Only 3% of Oklahoma tenants hired any farm laborers.
  • Meanwhile, 39% of tenants nationwide hired farm labor.

Several factors account for the lack of hired labor on Oklahoma farms:

  • Smaller average farm size – Less need for additional helpers beyond family.
  • Limited capital – Tenants lacked funds to pay additional laborers.
  • Lower productivity – Smaller harvests meant less need for labor at critical times.

This resulted in Oklahoma tenant farming being characterized almost solely by family farms. Very few tenants had the means or need to hire any extra labor.


Tenant farming was common throughout the United States during the late 1800s and early 1900s. But Oklahoma stands out for its exceptionally high rates of tenancy along with some unique characteristics like the dominance of cash renting, importance of truck farming, lack of tenant capital ownership, and scarcity of hired labor.

These distinctive features of tenant farming arose from Oklahoma’s history and circumstances. The opening of Oklahoma to white settlement through land runs brought an influx of settlers hoping to farm, yet limited resources made tenancy necessary for most. Poor land quality, credit shortages, and economic fluctuations also drove widespread tenancy. Within this context, characteristics like cash renting emerged as adaptive strategies.

So while the basic framework of tenant farming in Oklahoma mirrored other states in many ways, the disproportionate scale and distinctive features make it a notable aberration in the broader history of American tenant agriculture.