Agriculture Declining in Klamath

by Damon Runberg

July 22, 2019

Our traditional payroll and employment statistics are often referred to as “nonfarm payroll employment.” Most agricultural workers are exempt from the unemployment insurance program, which is what is primarily used for developing employment and wage estimates. As a result, our understanding of the employment impact of agriculture is far less detailed and timely than for other major industry sectors. The majority of the data pertaining to the impact of agriculture comes from The U.S. Department of Agriculture’s National Agricultural Statistics Service Census of Agriculture, which is conducted once every five years. County level data from the 2017 census was recently released and it revealed a fairly sharp decline in the impact of agriculture in Klamath County from the last census in 2012.

In 2017, there were 260 farm operations across the county with hired farm labor, for a total of 1,342 hired farm workers. The number of farms with hired labor was down by around 11 percent from 2012 and 16 percent from 2007. However, the drop in total farm workers was far more dramatic than the drop in farms who had hired workers. The number of hired farm workers in 2017 was 41 percent lower than it was back in 2012 and 30 percent lower than in 2007. This is a major hit to one of the region’s most important employment sectors.
We see a similar contraction in agriculture when looking at production of farms across the region. The number of farms was up between 2012 and 2017 (+5.2%); however, there was a dramatic reduction in the number of acres operated down to 483,000 acres in 2017 from 650,400 acres in 2012 (-25.7%). Despite the dramatic reduction in the acres operated and total farm labor, the inflation-adjusted sales of crops and livestock coming off farms in Klamath County held steady between 2012 and 2017 at roughly $193 million. Total sales stayed consistent during this five-year period despite a drop in total production, because the value of the goods being produced increased, particularly cattle and hay.
The picture these new Census of Agriculture estimates paint of Klamath’s agriculture sector is grim. More farms, but fewer acres operated and fewer workers employed in the industry. However, it is possible that the situation is not as bleak as these figures would imply. Since this census only occurs once every five years, it is important to understand the context within a given year. Drought conditions are one variable that can dramatically affect the agricultural sector from one year to the next. However, the region was largely free of drought in 2017, but back in 2012 there was a moderate drought for much of the county. In 2017, there were additional regulations and shutdowns on irrigation pumping from wells due to a connection drawn between groundwater withdrawals and declining surface water flows. These shutdowns in the upper basin would have directly impacted the agricultural sector. However, it is difficult to determine if that is the sole reason for the overall decline in farm labor and acres operated.

Ultimately, the story of Klamath’s declining agricultural sector is not unique. The long-term trend across the state has been very similar, with hired farm labor down around 30 percent between 2002 and 2017. The drop in acres in production across the state has not been as dramatic, but it’s still trending down, with the number of acres being farmed in Oregon down 6.5 percent from 2002.

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