Federal Coordinating Lead Author:
Carolyn Olson, U.S. Department of Agriculture
Chapter Leads:
Prasanna Gowda, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Jean L. Steiner, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Chapter Authors:
Tracey Farrigan, USDA Economic Research Service
Michael A. Grusak, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Mark Boggess, USDA Agricultural Research Service
Review Editor:
Georgine Yorgey, Washington State University
USGCRP Coordinators:
Susan Aragon-Long, Senior Scientist
Allyza Lustig, Program Coordinator

Agriculture and Rural Communities

U.S. farmers and ranchers are among the most productive in the world. The agricultural sector makes an important contribution to the U.S. economy, from promoting food and energy security to providing jobs in rural communities across the country. In 2015, U.S. farms contributed $136.7 billion to the economy, accounting for 0.76% of gross domestic product (GDP) and 2.6 million jobs (1.4% of total U.S. employment; Figure 10.1).1 About half of the farm revenue comes from livestock production. Other agriculture- and food-related value-added sectors contributed an additional 4.74% ($855 billion) of GDP and accounted for 21 million full- and part-time jobs (11.1% of U.S. employment). U.S. agriculture enjoys a trade surplus in which the value of agricultural exports (both bulk and high-value products) accounts for more than 20% of total U.S. agricultural production. Top high-value exports include feedstocks, livestock products, horticulture products, and oilseeds and oilseed products, and these exports help support rural communities across the Nation.


Figure 10.1: Agricultural Jobs and Revenue

Figure 10.1: The figure shows (a) the contribution of agriculture and related sectors to the U.S. economy and (b) employment figures in agriculture and related sectors (as of 2015). Agriculture and other food-related value-added sectors account for 21 million full- and part-time jobs and contribute about $1 trillion annually to the United States economy. Source: adapted from Kassel et al. 2017.1


A major portion of rural communities in the United States depend on agriculture and other related industries as economic drivers. During 2010–2012, a total of 444 counties were classified as farming dependent, of which 391 were rural counties.4 In 2013, about 46 million people, or 15% of the U.S. population, lived in rural counties, covering 72% of the Nation’s land area. From 2010 to 2017, a historic number of rural counties in the United States experienced population declines due to persistent outmigration of young adults.2 However, some counties in the Northern Great Plains reversed decades of population loss to grow at a modest rate due to the energy boom in that region. Recent demographic trends point to relatively slow employment and population growth in rural areas, as well as higher rates of poverty in rural compared to urban regions (Figure 10.2).1,5,6,7

U.S. agricultural production relies heavily on the Nation’s land, water, and other natural resources.8 In 2012, about 40%, or 915 million acres, of U.S. land was farmland, of which 45.4% was permanent pasture, 42.6% was cropland, and 8.4% was woodland.9 Only about 6% of the farmland was irrigated. Agricultural land use can change over time,10,11 and these changes are sometimes reversible, such as when shifting between cropland and pastureland (Ch. 22: N. Great Plains, Table 22.3, Figure 22.4), and sometimes irreversible, such as when agricultural land is converted to urban uses.12 These natural resource bases are affected continually by agricultural production practices and climate change.13,14,15,16

Bioenergy cropping is increasing and remains a major focus of research to develop appropriate dedicated feedstocks for different regions of the United States.17,18,19,20,21,22 Crop residue harvest, particularly from corn, has the potential to provide additional income streams to producers and rural communities, but the impact on soil carbon sequestration and greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions indicates that only part of the residue can be harvested sustainably.23,24,25,26 Biochar, a by-product of cellulosic bioenergy production, holds potential as a soil amendment27,28 that in some soils provides a GHG mitigation29 and adaptation benefit. However, many questions remain on how to develop sustainable crop- and grass-based bioenergy systems within a region.30,31,32

Technological advancements through concerted public and private efforts and the increasing availability of inputs (such as fertilizers, pesticides, and feed additives) have led to significant improvements in productivity while reducing agriculture’s environmental footprint.33,34,35 However, there are some major challenges to the future of agriculture and food security.36 The agricultural sector accounted for about 9% of the Nation’s total GHG emissions in 2015,37 so reducing emissions in the agriculture sector could have a significant impact on total U.S. emissions. Nonetheless, agriculture is one of the few sectors with the potential for significant increases in carbon sequestration to offset GHG emissions. Furthermore, water quality degradation, including eutrophication (an overload of nutrients) in the Great Lakes and coastal water bodies (for example, the northern Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay) (see Ch. 18: Northeast, Box 18.6; Ch. 21: Midwest, Box 21.1; Ch. 23: S. Great Plains, KM 3), remains an ongoing challenge.

The current state of agricultural systems in different regions of the United States is the result of continuous efforts made by farmers, ranchers, researchers, and extension specialists to identify opportunities, practices, and strategies that are viable in different climates. However, any change in the climate poses a major challenge to agriculture through increased rates of crop failure, reduced livestock productivity, and altered rates of pressure from pests, weeds, and diseases.38,39 Rural communities, where economies are more tightly interconnected with agriculture than with other sectors, are particularly vulnerable to the agricultural volatility related to climate.40


Figure 10.2: Population Changes and Poverty Rates in Rural Counties

Figure 10.2: The figure shows county-level (a) population changes for 2010–2017 and (b) poverty rates for 2011–2015 in rural U.S. communities. Rural populations are migrating to urban regions due to relatively slow employment growth and high rates of poverty. Data for the U.S. Caribbean region were not available at the time of publication. Sources: (a) adapted from ERS 20182; (b) redrawn from ERS 2017.3


Climate changes projected by global climate models are consistent with observed climate changes of concern to agriculture (Ch. 2: Climate).41,42,43 Climate change has the potential to adversely impact agricultural productivity at local, regional, and continental scales.44 Crop and livestock production in certain regions will be adversely impacted both by direct effects of climate change (such as increasing trends in daytime and nighttime temperatures; changes in rainfall patterns; and more frequent climate extremes, flooding, and drought) and consequent secondary effects (such as increased weed, pest, and disease pressures; reduced crop and forage production and quality; and damage to infrastructure). While climate change impacts on future agricultural production in specific regions of the United States remain uncertain, the ability of producers to adapt to climate change through planting decisions, farming practices, and use of technology can reduce its negative impact on production (Ch. 21: Midwest, Case Study “Adaptation in Forestry”).45

Risks associated with climate changes depend on the rate and severity of the changes and the ability of producers to adapt to changes. The severity of financial risks also depends on changes in food prices as well as local-to-global trade levels, as production and consumption patterns will likely be altered due to climate change.10,46 Many countries are already experiencing rapid price increases for basic food commodities, mainly due to production losses associated with more frequent weather extremes and unpredictable weather events. The United States is a major exporter of agricultural commodities,47 and a disruption in its agricultural production will affect the agricultural sector on a global scale. Food security, which is already a challenge across the globe, is likely to become an even greater challenge as climate change impacts agriculture.48,49 Food security will be further challenged by projected population growth and potential changes in diets as the world seeks to feed a projected 9.8 billion people by 2050.50,51,52

In the late 1900s, U.S. agriculture started to develop significant capacities for adaptation to climate change, driven largely by public-sector investment in agricultural research and extension.53 Currently, there are numerous adaptation strategies available to cope with adverse impacts of climate change.38,54,55 These include altering what is produced in a region, modifying the inputs used for production, adopting new technologies, and adjusting management strategies. Crop management strategies include the selection of crop varieties/species that meet changes in growing degree days and changes in requirements for fertilizer rates, timing, and placement to match plant requirements.56 Adaptation strategies also include changes in crop rotation, cover crops, and irrigation management.57,58,59,60,61,62 With changes to rainfall patterns that greatly impact the environment, wider use of proven technologies will be required to prevent soil erosion, waterlogging, and nutrient losses.44,63 Adaptation strategies for sustaining and improving livestock production systems include managing heat stress by altering diets,64,65,66,67,68,69,70 providing adequate shade and clean drinking water supplies,71,72 monitoring stock rates continuously to match forage availability,73,74,75 altering the timing of feeding/grazing and reproduction,76 and selecting the species/breeds that match climatic conditions.54,77 Other strategies to reduce climate change impacts include integrated pest and disease management,78,79 the use of climate forecasting tools,80 and crop insurance coverage to reduce financial risk.44,81,82 These strategies have proven effective as evidenced by continued productivity growth and efficiency. The proper implementation of combinations of these strategies has the potential to effectively manage negative impacts of moderate climate change. However, these approaches have limits under severe climate change impacts.66,83,84,85

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