Agricultural History of North Carolina
North Carolina Agricultural History
Author: J. Paul Lilly
Associate Professor Emeritus
Department of Soil Science
North Carolina State University

In order to understand both agriculture and forestry as they are today, I believe we need to know what they have evolved from. Thomas Isern, Professor of History at Emporia State University, wrote that "If you know nothing of agricultural history, then you cannot understand American history." This is just as true of forestry history. In 1790, 93% of the population of the United States was rural, most of them farmers. By 1990, only 200 years later, barely 2% of our population are farmers.

Image of vintage farming

The agriculture we have today in the United States is unique. No nation has ever had so few people actively farming. This is a profound social change that has isolated most people from rural life and from an appreciation of the complexities and uncertainties of food production. For the most part people take agricultural production for granted. Our society has had no experience with true food scarcity. Our supermarkets always have full shelves and food is cheap. Today we spend only 10 percent of our income on food. In 1950 we spent 22 percent of our income on food, and in 1935 a moderate income farm family in North Carolina spent 47% of their total living on food. In the past it took much more time and effort to obtain or produce food.


It surprises most people that under natural conditions the soils in North Carolina are too low in plant nutrients to sustain crop production. For most of our history we have practiced shifting cultivation. We have cut and burned the forest, grown crops for a few years until the fertility was exhausted, and abandoned the land. This was the system used by the American Indians, it was the system adopted by European settlers, and it is a system still used in much of the world today. It is often referred to it as "slash and burn" agriculture. Sustainable agriculture became possible only after commercial fertilizers were made available in the late 1800s.


The first permanent English settlement in America was established at Jamestown, Virginia, in 1607 on the James River. Land was being abandoned in Virginia because of low fertility as early as the 1620's. North Carolina was first settled from the north by Virginians in search of new land for tobacco. The Northeast part of the state was settled by 1650 but the Pamlico was not opened to settlers until 1700. One of the first areas settled after 1700 was the lake rim around Lake Mattamuskeet. These high organic soils were productive and the area developed into the major grain growing area on the east coast.


Settlers further west on the Pamlico River encountered opposition by the Tuscarora Indians that resulted in the massacre of 200 settlers in only three hours in 1711. With help from South Carolina, the Indians were defeated in a battle near Snow Hill in 1713. 558 indians were killed and 392 captured. This ended indian opposition in the east and allowed rapid westward migration. The population of North Carolina was about 36,000 in 1720 and had grown to 345,000 by 1775.



As a result of the Revolutionary War, all English Crown lands became state property. By this time all the easily cleared land had been claimed and there was intense land pressure. Many people had no interest in moving west or south to the frontier, so interest shifted to developing the swamplands. Swamplands had been drained and farmed in Europe for some time, and it was known that swamp soils were naturally more fertile than upland soils due to the decay of the accumulated organic matter. Except for the swamplands and the steepest mountain slopes, essentially all of the present woodland in North Carolina has been farmed and abandoned in the past. Loblolly pine is sometimes called "old field" pine because it colonizes abandoned land so readily.

George Washington and five other investors formed a company to drain 40,000 acres of land in the Great Dismal Swamp in 1763. Their major activity was logging. A canal to connect the port at Norfolk with the sounds of North Carolina was proposed 1784 and the canal was completed 1812. It had the effect of draining a considerable amount of swampland that was developed for agriculture. There had always been interest in logging the cypress and juniper of the swamps and this activity increased in intensity.


Another group of investors received a state permit to drain Lake Phelps in Washington County, but plans were changed when a survey showed that it would be possible to use the lake for water power and irrigation. In the early 1800s several families were clearing swampland north of Lake Phelps. The Collins family built Somerset Place in the 1830s. Their farming operation covered several thousand acres and was considered very progressive for its time.

Farmers on older, more mineral land were not so lucky. In 1822 Professor Elisha Mitchell wrote that across the state much land had been abandoned and that farmers were being forced to clear inferior land that their ancestors would have passed over as not worth cultivating. These were primarily steeper lands and deep sandy lands.

Image of vintage farming
By 1860 when the Civil War began, there were 69,000 farms in North Carolina. 46,000 of these, or 71%, were under 100 acres in size. In 1860 there were only 300 plantations of 1,000 acres or more in the state. The 1860 census listed 121 planters and 85,198 farmers. North Carolina has a long history of small farm size. Cattle and hogs were on free range. Livestock was fenced out of fields. Cutting trees for fence rails was a major cause of forest destruction. The Civil War bankrupted most industries in North Carolina, including agriculture. Even the University of North Carolina was forced to close for a time due to lack of funds. Most people still lived on farms. Farming was very labor intensive and totally dependent on human and animal power
Image of vintage farming

In order to raise money after the Civil War, the state sold off much of the remaining swamplands. The period between the end of the War and the early 1900s saw the rise of large scale mechanized timber harvest. There were still substantial acreages of virgin timber in eastern North Carolina in 1860 but essentially none by 1900. One of the largest lumber companies was the John L. Roper company. John L. Roper is credited with perfecting kiln drying of second growth sapwood pine. Bluestain had kept it off the northern markets, but kiln drying made it acceptable. The Roper Company had a total sawmill capacity 600,000 BF/day, at 11 or 12 mills. 80% of what they sawed was pine.

Most of the cut over land was considered worthless, but some of it was promoted for agricultural development. European settlers were actively recruited to settle the North Carolina swampland. The area of Terra Cecia in Beaufort County is an example of one such development. To the west there was more and more worn out land. Photographs from the period show farmed and abandoned land and the absence of forests. Planned reforestation was advocated in the 1890s by the state forester, but was not widely practiced until much later.

The First World War brought temporary prosperity to both agriculture and forestry. Agriculture expanded to meet the increased demand for food and fiber and forest products were in great demand. Low analysis fertilizers were becoming available but were expensive and used in very small amounts. The twenties and thirties brought the depression. The boom years of the war were over. Farm prices dropped severely. Cotton sold for 35 cents per pound in 1919 but dropped to only 6 cents per pound in 1931. Total national farm income was 16.9 billion in 1919, and only 5.3 billion in 1932. There was little market for wood products and logging had moved on to the virgin forests of the Mississippi Delta, the North and the West.

The rural pattern at this time in North Carolina was small farms, poverty, and a terribly poor standard of living. In 1923 a survey was made of 351 rural families in Chatham County, North Carolina, both white and black. Almost half were tenants. None of the 175 tenants had running water, and only eight even had outside privies. The others had no sanitary facilities whatsoever. The average daily income for a member of a sharecropping family was 9 cents. The drop in crop prices after the war led to wide-spread destructive cutting of second and third growth southern forests.


Because of low yields, the need for animal feeds, strong exports, and an increasing population, more land was in crops in the late 1800s and early 1900s than at any time in our history. For the state and the nation the outlook for agriculture in the twenties and thirties was grim. There was real hunger and many people were not able to buy food.

The land had been abused and there was no money for inputs. Cotton and tobacco were the cash crops and they required long hours of hard hand labor. Large areas had severe soil erosion. This was the time of the dust bowl in the west. The Soil Erosion Service was formed in 1933 in response to a national crisis in soil loss. The first Soil Conservation District in the United States was formed in Anson County in 1937. You would not like North Carolina to look like it did in those years.

Interest in reforestation was growing and government programs were planting trees on some worn out farm land. Much of the cut over woodland left by the "cut and run" loggers passed into the hands of timber and paper companies that understood the need for sustained tree production. North Carolina Pulp Company came to Plymouth in 1937 and merged with Weyerhaeuser in 1957. Today Weyerhaeuser is the largest private landowner in North Carolina and grows timber on about 600,000 acres of land. Some of this is former farmland. There are other timber companies with similar operations.

The Agricultural Adjustment Act was passed in 1933 and again in 1938. As a result acreage control programs were established on tobacco, peanuts, cotton and other crops. The purpose was to stabilize production and raise returns to farmers. This was and is a sociological program designed to preserve small farms. The Farm population of the United States was 32,076,960 in 1910 and still 32,059,000 in 1939. America was beginning to mechanize during the 1920s and 30s, with tractors on the farms and cars and trucks in urban areas. Between 1914 and 1939 the number of horses and mules in America dropped by 13,500,000 head, reducing the amount of land needed for animal feed production by 40,000,000 acres nation-wide

The Second World War was a turning point for North Carolina agriculture. By 1940, due to mechanization and lack of opportunity off the farm, there was a huge population surplus on farms with no place to go. In 1940 over 40% of the population in North Carolina still lived on farms. Nationally the percentage was about 20%. The war removed people from the farm. It created a larger market for farm products, producing more income and more pressure toward mechanization.

Many service people from rural areas were exposed to modern sanitation and urban society for the first time while in the military. In 1940 only 8.5% of farm homes had flush toilets compared with 85% of urban homes. In 1940 only 25% of farm homes had electricity as compared with 95% of urban homes. We laugh at Andy Griffith playing the country bumpkin in "No Time For Sergeants", but there was a great deal of truth in the story. Service people returned home to raised expectations and wanted a better standard of living. Technology developed during the war also led to new pesticides, new herbicides, and new farm equipment.
The war prosperity coupled with returning veterans led to the largest number of farms in North Carolina history. One key reason was the availability of farm loans to veterans, and another was the tobacco program. An acceptable living could still be made with family labor on only a few acres. Since 1950 the number of farms in North Carolina has dropped drastically, from 301,000 in 1950 to fewer than 60,000 now. In the last fifteen years we have lost over half our farms. The state is still losing 2,000 or so farms per year. The number of people actively engaged in farming has dropped steadily for some years. Old abandoned farm houses are an all too familiar sight across the state.
The technological advancements begun during the war continued. As yields per acre rose the amount of land needed decreased, and with mechanization the number of farm workers has declined. In 1950 each farmer produced food for 27 other people. Now one farmer feeds over 130 others. Under the economic and sociological conditions that prevailed, those farmers who adopted more efficient practices prospered and those who did not, failed. In the past a farmer could operate with a few simple tools. In 1900 the average farm had $131.00 worth of farm equipment and four horses or mules. Today's farms have replaced human and animal labor with machines, technology, and capital. It is not uncommon for a farm to have over a million dollars worth of farm machinery.
Image of farmers harvesting crops using motorized machinery
In 1883 the average corn yield for North Carolina was 11.5 bushels per acre and the average price was $0.65 per bushel. In 1933 the average corn yield was 19.5 bushels per acre and in 1992 the average corn yield was 95 bushels per acre. Hybrid corn was introduced in 1933. Tobacco acreage topped out at 843,000 acres in 1939; in 1992 it was 267,000. Corn topped out in 1899 at 2,720,000 acres; in 1992 it was 1,100,000. Soybeans are a relatively new commercial crop and peaked in 1982 at 2,100,000 acres. In 1992 there were 1,400,000 acres of soybeans. Wheat topped out in 1901 at 800,000 acres; in 1992 it was 550,000. Cotton topped out in 1926 at 1,802,000 acres; in 1992 it was 390,000. Peanuts peaked in 1945 near the end of the Second World War at 320,000 acres; in 1992 they were 126,000 acres.
There is considerably less land in crops today than in the past, but more inputs, such as fertilizers, and higher yields per acre have more than made up the difference. In the United States as a whole, between 1930 and 1987 the population nearly doubled but the amount of cropland decreased by 14%. There are two important trends in North Carolina agriculture. First of all, animal agriculture has replaced row crops as the leading source of income. There are more hogs, turkeys, and chickens than there has ever been. In contrast, dairy cattle and sheep are only a fraction of their former numbers. The second important trend has been the shift of agricultural production from the west to the east.
Crop production has tended to move off of the more erodible and less productive hilly land to the flatter, less erodible, and more productive eastern lands. For the state as a whole, cropland acreage is substantially lower now than it was than 50 to 75 years ago. Economic conditions in the 1970s and 1980s resulted in swampland development for agriculture in eastern North Carolina. As a result, as acreage declined in the west, it increased somewhat in the east. We can expect cropland acreage to begin to drop in the east now that swampland development has ended and agriculture competes with other, higher value, uses for land. The same land that is desirable for crops is desirable for shopping centers and other urban uses. Forest land acreage should remain stable or even grow since forestry products seem to have a bright future. The amount of forest land in NC was about 18.7 million acres in the 1930's and it is still about that amount now.

North Carolina agriculture was once predominantly a subsistence agriculture with little extra produced for trade or sell, but today it is overwhelmingly a cash crop agriculture competing on a world market. An hour of farm labor produces nearly eight times as much today as it did only 40 years ago. Most people have a sentimental and false notion of what rural life was like in the past. But the truth is, it was a brutal life where people worked long and hard and typically died young. The environment also suffered. We cannot turn the clock back to this lifestyle for a variety of economic and sociological reasons. Lifestyles and expectations have changed, as they should have. Farmers today, just as most other people, generate income to purchase the necessities and comforts of life. Farmers want their families to have the same services, amenities, and opportunities taken for granted by urban dwellers. People who once labored as field hands or as share croppers would want no part of that old lifestyle. Whether we realize it or not, our society and our economy have created the agriculture we have today.

My purpose is to help you realize that our society and our land use has changed immensely over the years. Land that is wooded now was once farmed. The countryside was once much more densely populated than it is now. We have less land in crops now than we did just after the Civil War. And, the perception that forest land acreage is decreasing is a myth.




NCDA&CS Agricultural Statistics Division, Dee Webb - State Statistician
Mailing Address: P. O. Box 27767 Raleigh, NC 27611
Physical Address: 2 West Edenton Street, Raleigh NC 27601
Phone: (919) 856-4394; FAX: (919) 856-4139