Traditional Appalachians relied on subsistence farming, with the mountain terrain allowing only scattered farming on relatively small amounts of tillable land. Commercialization, which revolutionized farming elsewhere in the nation, had little impact in Appalachia. Early in the twentieth century, lumbering and coal mining lured Appalachians off the land with the promise of steady employment. With the decline of these industries, people have been forced to migrate, commute to jobs, or find work in other industries. Almost everyone maintains family gardens, with corn and tobacco common crops. Cattle, chickens, and hogs are widely raised.
Large-scale commercial exploitation of the forests began after the Civil War when the national demand for timber increased and the spread of rail lines made the transportation of lumber possible. Lumbering was managed by outside syndicates who hired local labor. Production peaked in 1909, but by 1920, with the forests nearly depleted, the large companies were moving out. Small companies, relying on small mills and circular saws, took over what was left of the industry. By the 1960s only temporary work at low wages was available, and workers, who might have two or more lumbering jobs each year, had to supplement their wages through other forms of employment.
Coal mining is the largest mineral industry in southern Appalachia, although manganese, zinc, lead, copper, pyrite, marble, feldspar, kaolin, and mica are also mined or quarried. Large-scale coal mining began in the late 1800s, boomed during World War I, declined during the Great Depression, and then boomed again during World War II. Since then, owing to competition from other fuels and the mechanization of the industry, coal mining has declined as a primary source of employment. The declines in agriculture, mining, and lumbering have forced Appalachians to look elsewhere for income, migrating to cities, commuting to towns, receiving government assistance, selling land, or cultivating and marketing shrubbery.