Farmers know good, black dirt when they see it. Lucky for North Carolina farmers, some of the most highly organic soil in the nation is right along the state’s eastern coast.
This region is known as the Blacklands, covering parts of eight counties along and near the Atlantic coastline. Originally a cypress tree swamp, visionary farmers from Holland, Germany and the Midwestern U.S. began to drain the land and clear trees in the 1960s. The result was a highly productive agricultural region where North Carolina farmers today grow corn, soybeans and wheat. Other crops include Irish potatoes for potato chips, and specialty crops like sweet corn and cucumbers.
“Most of the people in the rest of the country don’t really know it exists,” says Jeff Sparks, owner of Green Valley Farms in Columbia and president of the Blacklands Farm Managers Association. “In North Carolina, you usually only think about colleges and the beach and maybe the mountains, but they don’t realize all this agriculture is in our state.”
Large Farms, Family Owned
Sparks says many of the farms are large, with producers operating on anywhere from 2,000 to 10,000 acres. But he estimates that 99 percent of those farms are still family farms. Others rent from outside investors who own large tracts of land in the area.
Derick Tetterton of DHT Farms in Pantego farms corn, soybeans and cotton on the edge of the Blacklands region. Some of his ground includes soil with a higher clay or sand content.
“The real, true Blacklands are really good at growing corn and a lot of people just want to keep their corn on that. The ground where there’s more clay and sand, corn’s not going to yield as well, but it’ll yield cotton pretty fair, so that’s why we do it like that,” Tetterton says.
Tetterton grew up in the area, and recently purchased the family farm from his father-in-law. He splits his rotation pretty evenly each year to help manage risk, but his main challenge in recent years has come from the weather.
“Being so low, water, drainage and hurricanes are the biggest issues we’ve seen in the last two or three years,” Tetterton says.
Sparks agrees, as his farm sits at an elevation of just 1 to 5 feet above sea level, about 35 miles from the Atlantic Ocean.
“I would say probably the weather extremes are the most challenging. You’ve got insects and disease as well, but you can manage those pretty good with agriculture practices. The weather is one thing you just have no control over,” Sparks says. “We can manage the water. We can get the water off of the farm, but as far as the soil moisture and saturation, you can’t do anything about that. When it gets saturated and it rains every day, you can’t get the water out of the soil profile, even with drain tile and everything else we have. It won’t move that much water.”
But Sparks says farming in the Blacklands region can be very rewarding.
“On corn, we’ve got a yield potential down here where we’ve picked a lot of 250-bushel corn. The potential is there for 300 if the weather cuts you a break. On soybeans, we’ve cut some 100-bushel soybeans in several years past. On the wheat side of things, it’s not uncommon to have 130- to 140-bushel wheat about every year,” Sparks says. “If Mother Nature treats you right, it’s a really good area.”