07/15/10 — Event reviews rich history of farming in Wayne region

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Event reviews rich history of farming in Wayne region

By Aaron Moore
Published in News on July 15, 2010 1:46 PM

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Kevin Johnson, agriculture agent with Wayne County Cooperative Extension, reviews the history of agriculture in Wayne County to a room full of people at Wayne County Museum.

Whether people are interested in agriculture or not, one thing is certain, if you're going to live in Wayne County, it's important to know at least a little about farming.

That was the message that Cooperative Extension Agent Kevin Johnson emphasized Tuesday night at the Wayne County Museum.

Johnson gave an hour-long presentation on the history of farming in Wayne County, covering everything from the legendary boll weevil to the reason behind the nickname "The Tar Heel State."

The Wayne County Historical Society put on the exhibition, but Johnson gave the PowerPoint presentation, delving into the stories of the pioneer families who founded Wayne, started the first turpentine industry, then later, cotton production, followed by the longtime boom in tobacco and up to today's livestock-oriented farm operations.

"Farming has been so important to this county, so important to this community," Johnson told his audience.

By 1779, he explained, when Wayne County was first formed, the population mainly consisted of first or second-generation immigrants from Europe and, in some cases, their slaves.

Most of the settlers had little money, Johnson said, and they had to learn to be self-sufficient. They began growing their own crops to survive, and while the wealthier farmers used slaves, the majority of farmers had to get out in the fields and do it themselves.

One of the earliest agricultural practices, Johnson said, was distilling tar and pitch from longleaf pine sap to use to make wooden ships watertight. By the mid 1800s, the practice had grown into an important industry, and there were so many tar pits in North Carolina people "couldn't step anywhere without getting tar on your heels," Johnson explained.

"That's how we got to be called the Tar Heel State," he said.

Overproduction of turpentine eventually decimated the longleaf pine in North Carolina, however, and with the onset of the Civil War and advent of metal ships and boats, the industry died out.

But there was another useful crop that Wayne County farmers had since discovered, Johnson said, and it was bringing in profit a long time before the turpentine industry went downhill.

"The interesting thing is, textiles were ... so important to this state in the mid-1800s, there were cotton gins in every county -- every community," he said.

But it was a while before cotton gins came to North Carolina, and when they did, Wayne County farmers used to have to send their cotton off to Fayetteville to be ginned so they wouldn't have to pick out the seeds by hand anymore.

"Where did the name 'gin' come from?" was a question several audience members wondered about.

"I heard that in the South, they couldn't say 'engine,' so they just shortened the name," answered Chris Lawson, a Wayne County Museum staff member.

But soon, along came the infamous boll weevil, and the little pest devastated cotton fields of North Carolina and other Southern states for decades to come, leaving Wayne farmers and others in the region to turn to yet another crop: tobacco.

"This is the big one," Johnson said with a smile. "It dominated Wayne County and state agriculture for 100 years. And I mean, dominated."

Tobacco began, Johnson explained, with a group of influential businessmen in Wilson who had hit hard times and wanted to do some economic good for their hometown.

"The Duke family and the Reynolds family helped create huge demand for tobacco through cigarette manufacturing," Johnson said. "People were proud of their tobacco back then. Nobody worried about smoke. Tobacco was OK then."

Tobacco was the most labor-intensive crop to farm, Johnson said, but it was also the most profitable that had yet come along. A farmer in 1940, he said, could easily get by farming tobacco on three or four acres of land.

"You could feed your family. You could send your kids to college," he said. "Nothing else in farming could make you so much profit with so little land."

Wilson quickly became the world's largest tobacco market, and the crop brought enormous profit to Wayne and all of North Carolina, Johnson said.

"Tobacco built the state we live in today," he said. "Is tobacco harmful? Yes. But tobacco has been good to this state."

The profit from tobacco, he said, helped pay for the building of Duke University, Wake Forest University and North Carolina State University -- one of the reasons the area stretching between these schools and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill earned the nickname "Tobacco Road."

Eventually health concerns arose from tobacco, however, and the crop has since stopped being such a money-earner. In 1999, the federal government bought out the quota system that had limited the amount of tobacco a farmer could grow. It was instituted in the 1930s to keep the price of tobacco from going too low.

There is still a lot of tobacco grown in Wayne County on the open market, but many Wayne County farmers have now moved on to livestock, Johnson said, whether it is turkeys, chickens or hogs.

"Wayne is the third-largest pork producer (in North Carolina). We're a very important player in this market. When you go to Wal-Mart and buy pork, there's a good chance it's coming from this area."

Johnson wrapped up the presentation by describing how farmers must now accept the challenges of living in a global market.

"I personally prefer my food to be grown in the United States," he said. "The government can't monitor every watermelon that comes in from Mexico. Buying here is good for Wayne County."

Johnson also added his own request for any family photos people might have that could help him put together research on a more extensive history of farming in Wayne County, since agriculture has been such an important foundation for the community.

Otherwise, he said, "They're going to forget where we came from."