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By Pat Garber
Following N.C. Route 45 through mainland Hyde County, one passes swamps, canals and fields, but it is only by veering off the main highways that one can appreciate the extent of agriculture in this large coastal county.
These are “the Blacklands,” reminders of early, old-fashioned farms and modern mega-agricultural businesses that have been and continue to be an important part of county history and economy.
During the early 1700s, colonists from Virginia and farther north began moving to the Albemarle-Pamlico Peninsula in eastern North Carolina, of which Hyde County is part.
They found themselves in a vast inland wetland, which the Mouzan Map of 1775 called the Great Alligator Dismal Swamp.
Settlers built houses and cultivated land for agriculture, but before long they learned that much of the land would have to be drained. Canals and ditches were soon in the works with convict and slave labor used to build the drainage canals.
The soil in the drained swamplands was a rich black color, deriving its tone from accumulated organic matter, and the farmlands soon came to be known as the Blacklands.
A new book, “North Carolina’s Blacklands Treasure,” by Philip S. McMullan Jr. (2016), describes in text and photographs the history of farming on the mainland.
Among the most significant of the drainage projects, the book says, was at Lake Mattamuskeet.
Edmund Ruffin wrote that there were 32,000 acres in and around Mattamuskeet in 1839. While the 1882 Kerr-Cain map shows five canals draining the lake, farming the drained land was only marginally successful and draining was later abandoned.
Despite the drainage failure, farming continued to grow in importance in Hyde County during the 19th century.
Near the beginning of the Civil War, Confederate Gen. Daniel Harvey wrote in a report that “Hyde is the richest county in North Carolina in agricultural products.”
Abundant as the crops might have been, the majority of people growing them were not reaping the rewards.
In an 1888 report submitted to the N.C. Bureau of Labor Statistics, 75 percent of Hyde County’s labor force was farmers, many of them tenants working on lands owned by others.
The report presented a revealing look at their lives, which meant hard labor from sunup to sundown.
Farm laborers in the 1880s made between $.75 and $1.25 a day. They typically bought store items on time, paying up to 40 percent more than cash value. According to a report by a landlord listed only as G.H.W., “the tenants and laborers are interested in education and are trying to send their children to school; the landlords are not caring much about it; they want work done and have no interest in anything further…”
Around 1950, large-scale farm developers moved in and flourished through the 1980s. Many of the landowners were from other countries–Germany, Italy, Japan and China—and the Church of the Latter Day Saints also acquired large tracts.
Farmers today hail from North Dakota, the Midwest, West Virginia and other parts of North Carolina, as well as Hyde County.
Blackland soils are still considered to be some of the best in the country, according to McMullan, but to be productive require lime, pesticides and nutrients. Most local farmers lease the land, although some own their own farms. Wheat, corn, soybeans, and cotton are the main crops, but produce such as potatoes, cabbage and onions are on the increase.
Bill Rich, Hyde County manager and former manager of a 35,000 acre mega-farm, said that most of the big agri-businesses are no longer raising food crops.
Of the farm he managed only 7,000 acres are now planted in crops and 28,000 acres have been converted into wildland for conservation and hunting, notably the increasing number of black bears.
The same has happened with the other large farms.
Today, according to Rich, many farms are from 2,000 to 6,000 acres. Of the foreign-owned farms only an Italian one remains and it is 55,000 acres in Carteret County.
Hyde County Commissioner Benjamin Simmons III owns and leases the largest amount of working farmland in Hyde with row-crops of corn, soybeans, potatoes and green beans.
Of the farms Rich calls “the big boys,” there are about six with 5,000+-acre tracts, big houses and airplanes or helicopters. They farm for wildlife, he said, raising grains for quail and turkeys, and then flooding the fields for geese and ducks.
Among those, Benjamin “Jamin” Simmons, father of Benjamin Simmons III, is in charge of about 50,000 acres that serves as habitat for hunting deer, quail and bear with Dare to Hyde Outdoor Adventures.