As traditional farms dwindle and the number of large farms grows, rural America is dealing with dramatic economic and social shifts. According to the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), 40 percent of people in rural areas lived on farms in 1950. Now USDA statistics reveal that less than 10 percent of the rural population lives on farms and that only 14 percent of the rural workforce is employed in agriculture.
Conditions in rural America vary greatly. Some rural areas within commuting distances to big cities are thriving. Many are attracting retirees and high-income professionals willing to commute. More remote rural communities are not faring as well. According to the USDA, in 2003 14.2 percent of the population living in rural America, or 7.5 million people, were poor, while the poverty rate in metropolitan areas was 12.1 percent, a disparity that has been constant for several decades.
A 2001 Congressional Research Service (CRS) report found that declines in farming and opposition to industrializing trends in agriculture are compelling rural areas to seek new job sources. The report goes on to say that manufacturing, which has been a major focus of rural economic development over the last 40 years, is now also threatened by increasing low-wage international competition.
Some rural residents do not welcome large feeding operations in their communities, often because of the odors associated with concentrated animal feeding operations (CAFOs). Although large farms create jobs and can add to local economies, a 2001 U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) environmental assessment found that the heavy odors emitted from some CAFOs can reduce property values for nearby homes.