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Farm Counties Lose Population

Over one third of rural counties are experiencing protracted and significant population loss, and the trend is pronounced in agricultural counties. “More than 80% of all rural farm counties are depopulating,” say demographer Kenneth Johnson and policy fellow Daniel Lichter in a University of New Hampshire brief. “Depopulation…reflects the historical impact of employment declines in agriculture resulting from mechanization and farm consolidation.”

Depopulation is greatest in the Plains but also affects north-central Iowa, southern Iowa, northern Missouri, and western Illinois. Yet, depopulation is far from universal since roughly as many counties enjoy growing populations as suffer depopulation. For their work, Johnson and Lichter looked at Census data since 1900 and say a “depopulation county” reached peak population by 1950 and declined by at least 25% by 2010.

One of the major factors in depopulation is the loss of young adults who move elsewhere for work. When they leave, there are fewer children born to offset aging adults. Six in 10 depopulating counties had more deaths than births from 2000 to 2010.

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization producing investigative reporting on food, agriculture, and environmental health.


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