I put together a dataset that tracks agricultural employment figures since 1870 using Census Statistical Abstracts.
The dataset splices two of these abstracts together: one abstract that had decennial statistics from 1870 to 1970 and another abstract that has yearly statistics from 1929 to 2002. I decided to splice the datasets at 1929, the beginning of the yearly statistical abstract. (The difference between the decennial and the yearly statistics for 1930 is relatively small and is not responsible for the big bump which starts to appear in 1930). The full dataset can be found here: Agricultural Employment in the US 1870 to 2002.
I have not carefully examined the methodology of these surveys, but here are a few things to keep in mind. These numbers are based on the Current Population Survey and only counts the non-institutional civilian population. From 1929 to 1947 the survey included only individuals 14 years old and over; 1947 and after it included individuals 16 years and older.
The first graph shows the percent of the workforce employed in agriculture starting from 1870; the second graph shows the total number of employees working agriculture and non-agriculture per year.
The second chart explains most of the first. The number of workers in agriculture has declined since 1910 while the number of non-farm workers has risen dramatically. The spike in the percentage of agricultural workers during the Great Depression was due to massive relative drop in non-farm employment.
The third graph shows that the absolute number of workers in agriculture has also shifted dramatically during this time period.
- The number of workers in agriculture rose steadily (though not as fast as the number of non-agricultural workers) until around 1910 when it began to plummet.
- Agricultural employment held relatively constant during the Great Depression. In fact it is only until after the depression when the absolute number of agricultural workers really begins to fall and does not level off until 1970.
- In 1870 nearly one in two workers was in agriculture. By 2000 it was one in 50 – though it is important to keep in mind that these data do not include immigrants.