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Appalachia and Ozarks - Economy & Settlements

Appalachia and Ozarks The national image of Appalachia is unquestionably rural. In some ways, this is valid. The urban percentage for the region is only about half the national average. A majority of the population is classified as either rural or rural nonfarm residents (people who live in rural areas but have urban occupations). However, Appalachia's high rural density is not supported by a large-scale, commercial agricultural system. Rather, small farms and minerals dependency (primarily coal) are the keys to this dense population.

Appalachia is America's primary region for owner-operated farms, with Kentucky and West Virginia leading the country in that category. Without any important commercial crop in Appalachia, there was little early growth of farm tenancy, and that pattern has remained.

The average farm in Appalachia contains only about 40 hectares. Furthermore, the rugged topography, poor soil, and short growing season in much of the region have resulted in a limited amount of available cropland and a greater relative emphasis on pasturage and livestock. Because fields are small and scattered in the valleys, the efficient use of large farm machinery is nearly impossible. The net result of all this is that farm incomes are low. A great many of the region's farmers turn to part-time jobs to provide supplementary income that will allow them to remain on the farms.

The type of agriculture found in most of the region is called general farming; that is, no discernible product or combination of products dominates the farm economy. Extensive animal husbandry is the most common and probably best agricultural use of the steep slopes. A number of crops, such as tobacco, apples, tomatoes, and cabbage, are locally important in some valley areas, with small plots of tobacco being the most common cash crop in the southern Appalachians. Corn is the region's leading row crop, but it is normally used on the farm for animal fodder.

There are important exceptions to this pattern of semi-marginal agriculture. The Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, for example, was early called the breadbasket of Virginia. Competition from wheat grown in the fertile grasslands of the Deep South and Great Plains forced the valley out of the national wheat market in the late 19th century. Although winter wheat is still grown, hay and corn for fodder and apples are now the valley's major crops, with turkey-raising also locally important. Dairying and apple production are important in the many valleys of central Pennsylvania. The Tennessee Valley is also a substantial agricultural district, with fodder crops and livestock most important.

Over much of Appalachia, farming's chief partner is coal. Almost all of the Allegheny Plateau is underlain with a vast series of bituminous coal beds that together comprise the world's largest such coal district. The coal seams have been exposed by the same streams that have, through their erosive activity, created the rugged topography of the plateau.

The coal of Appalachia became important shortly after the U.S. Civil War in the 1860s. It was the development of new types of coke-burning iron and steel furnaces that created this demand, because coke is processed from bituminous coal. The thick coal seams of southwestern Pennsylvania and northern West Virginia provided the fuel for Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, to rise to its status of Steel City during this period. As the nation turned to electrical power in the 20th century, coal from Appalachia provided fuel for electric-generating facilities along much of the East Coast and in the interior manufacturing core.

After the better part of a century of growth, the coal industry fell into a period of decline beginning in the 1950s. Production dropped as petroleum and natural gas replaced coal as major fuel sources. Between 1950 and 1960, many coal counties lost a full one-quarter of their population. The resulting economic depression, blending with the poverty common to Appalachia, created areas of particularly severe problems.

Today, growing power demands, coupled with continuing concern over the availability and cost of petroleum supplies and the safety of nuclear power, have reemphasized the need for coal in electric power generation. New generating plants use huge quantities of locally mined coal to produce electricity, much of which is transmitted to areas outside the region. Nearly 100 million tons of Appalachian coal is exported annually.

Appalachian coal is mined in several different ways. Underground or shaft mining was used first and is still quite important, especially in the northern parts of the region. Modern underground mining techniques--huge mobile drills and continuous mining machines that rip the coal out of the seams and then deposit it on conveyor belts for the trip to the surface--mean that tons of coal per minute can be removed from a seam.

Surface or strip mining, which is far less expensive if the coal seams are near the surface, has increased greatly in importance. In the central region (primarily eastern Kentucky, western Virginia, and southern West Virginia), where the most important producing section is today, large machines remove the rocks along a slope above a coal seam and then simply lift off the uncovered coal. Extraction along several seams on a slope by this method creates a peculiar, stepped appearance that looks from a distance like a series of increasingly smaller boxes piled on top of one another.

About half of the coal mined in Kentucky and most mined in Ohio and Alabama is from strip mine lands, while most of the coal from Pennsylvania, Virginia, and West Virginia--and two-thirds of that from Appalachia as a whole--is from shaft mines.

The first important coal field in Appalachia was not the bituminous fields of the plateau. Their exploitation was preceded by operations in the anthracite field at the northern tip of the ridge and valley in Pennsylvania. Anthracite is a much harder, smokeless coal that was important in home heating. Anthracite was also a major fuel for ore smelting until techniques to produce coke from bituminous coal were developed in the 1860s. The decline in use of coal for heating, coupled with the lack of alternative uses for anthracite, led to an economic depression in the anthracite belt. Although substantial anthracite reserves remain, production today is minimal.

Coal has been a mixed blessing to the people of Appalachia. It has long been the economic mainstay for large parts of the region and has employed, either directly or indirectly, hundreds of thousands of workers. Still, tens of thousands died in mine-related accidents.

Black lung, the result of many years of breathing too much coal dust, has affected countless others. The recent recovery of production in response to increased market demands has been accomplished mainly by greater mechanization. Most mineral rights are held by corporations that obtained them early and at low prices. While a number of Appalachian states have either initiated or increased surcharges on coal mined in their state, coal taxes remain low, and most coal profits leave the region.

In other mining activities, the Tri-State district in the Ozarks, where the borders of Oklahoma, Kansas, and Missouri meet, has long been a major area of lead mining. Southeastern Missouri, outside Appalachia, has produced lead for over 250 years, and surface mines there remain America's most important. Missouri has supplied most of the lead ever mined in the United States and currently produces more than three-quarters of the total national production.

The first oil well in the United States was drilled in northern Pennsylvania in 1859, and that state led the country in production through most of the 19th century. Today, the area supplies only a small part of the nation's crude oil needs, but it remains an important producer of high-quality oils and lubricants.

Finally, southeastern Tennessee is the most important remaining area of zinc production in the United States. In addition, several mines around Ducktown, Tennessee, near the North Carolina and Georgia borders, are the only major copper producers east of the Mississippi River.

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Page last modified: 01-11-2017 19:24:07 ZULU