As one of the most agriculturally diverse states in the nation, it is no wonder North Carolina’s ag industry is thriving. From corn to Christmas trees, sweet potatoes to shrimp, the state’s farmers produce over 80 different kinds of commodities, growing crops and livestock on 8.4 million acres of farmland anywhere from the Appalachians in the west to the East Coast.
A Diverse North Carolina
Dr. Jeff Mullahey, head of the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences, North Carolina State University (NCSU), says the extreme agricultural diversity is thanks to the state’s own geographic and climate diversity – from the soils, rainfall, temperature and elevation ranges found in the mountain region, Piedmont and coastal plain.
“North Carolina is the third most diverse agricultural state in the country thanks to our wide range in soil types, from sandy soil to heavier clay soils, to mineral soils in the eastern part of the state,” he says. “We can grow crops from tropical regions to those typically grown in colder climates. Our soils are good for different types of crops.”
He adds, “Our weather extremes also allow for diversification. We have differences in rainfall amount and weather patterns from coast to mountains. There are also changes in temperature and elevation ranges. Some crops thrive in the mountains but don’t do well in the Piedmont and coastal plain area.”
For example, Fraser firs grow well in the mountains, thriving in cold temperatures and higher elevations, while peaches flourish in the Sandhills region, located in the coastal plain, due to sandy soil.
Mountain region farms produce trout, Christmas trees, turfgrass, and greenhouse and nursery crops, among others. Piedmont farmers largely produce row crops, dairy, turkeys, chickens and eggs, vegetables and fruits, while coastal plain operations boast salmon, soft shell crabs, hogs, cotton, grapes, sweet potatoes, tobacco, row crops and much more.
According to Mullahey, the coastal plain region is where the largest ag operations, in terms of acreage, are found.
“That’s where you’ll get some farms that are 5,000 to 15,000 acres, whereas toward the Piedmont and mountains, the size of farms gets much smaller.”
In addition to geography and climate, a shift years ago in the tobacco industry – traditionally the backbone of North Carolina’s agriculture – led farmers to seek out new crops, such as vegetables and locally grown food.
“When the tobacco program changed, a lot of farmers had to change what they grew,” says Mullahey, noting tobacco is still North Carolina’s top cash crop. “But this state has always had the ability to be diverse. If there’s one thing I’ve learned about farming, it’s good to be diversified.”
Kornegay Family Farms
One such diverse farm is Kornegay Family Farms, a 5,500-acre operation in Princeton, Johnston County, located in the coastal plain region. The family- owned farm grows tobacco, sweet potatoes, soybeans, cotton, wheat and peanuts. In 2007, the operation started packaging and selling its own sweet potatoes, spurring a new company, Kornegay Family Produce.
“We can grow just about anything in North Carolina,” says Kim Kornegay-LeQuire, who operates the farm with her father, Danny.
Tobacco and sweet potatoes work well together as rotation crops, she says, and so do soybeans and peanuts. Diversity is good for profitability, keeping the operation busy year round. Plus, rotating crops helps soil stay healthy.
“If you’re going to be a farmer of our size, you have to be diverse because every crop helps the other out,” Kornegay-LeQuire adds.
Kornegay Family Farms has been farming tobacco and sweet potatoes for decades, adding cotton about 25 years ago and peanuts just three years ago. Watermelon and asparagus were added in 2016. The Kornegays keep an eye out for farming trends and the next best thing to grow. For example, in 2016, they planted corn for the first time in at least 15 years.
“It’s been a great year for corn in Johnston County, and for the whole state,” Kornegay-LeQuire says.