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North Carolina agriculture, 1860-2007

  • Using this resource

    This slideshow is organized in two ways: by topic (such as farmland or a specific crop) and by date. You can select a topic from the menu below the map. To change the date, click the slider and drag it along the timeline.

    Understanding the maps

    These maps show changes in North Carolina's agriculture from the eve of the Civil War in 1860 to the present. They are drawn from U.S. Census data collected at roughly fifty-year intervals.

    In them, you can see three major changes over the past 150 years:

    1. New technology and increased production. After the Civil War, the rapid development of new technologies dramatically increased agricultural production. Equipment such as harvesters, combines, and all-purpose tractors replaced hand and horse-powered work. New strains of crops were more resistant to disease, and chemical fertilizers, pesticides, and herbicides meant that far more could be grown per acre than before, and with less labor. New technologies have also allowed great concentration of the livestock industry.
    2. The growth of professional farming. In 1860, the vast majority of North Carolinians lived and/or worked on farms. Most farm products were consumed close to where they were produced. As new technologies made farming more and more productive, fewer and fewer farms and farmers were needed to feed the state and the nation. At the same time, refrigeration and improvements in transportation meant that many products could be shipped much farther than before.
    3. Concentration. In 1860, most farmers grew a wide variety of crops and raised several kinds of livestock and poultry, even though they might grow only one or two crops for market. Expensive equipment, though, has meant big costs, and falling prices for agricultural commodities mean that farmers have to produce more than ever to make the same amount of money. The result has been that, over the twentieth century, farmers have specialized more and more, and farms have grown bigger and bigger.

    In 1860, the state's agriculture was widespread, diverse, small-scale, labor-intensive, and subject to disease and pests. Today, for the most part, it is highly concentrated, narrowly focused, dependent on technology, and extremely productive.

    These maps don't tell the whole story, of course. Not shown here is the production of fruits and msot vegetables -- there are simply too many different crops grown. The scale of the maps also doesn't show the recent growth of organic agriculture or of very small farms growing for urban and niche markets.

    About the census data

    The U.S. Census of Agriculture was first conducted as part of the regular U.S. Census in 1840. Until 1992 it was conducted by the Census Bureau; now it is performed by the Department of Agriculture. The kinds of information collected and the ways in which it was reported have changed greatly over time.

    Here are a few things to keep in mind when you're looking at these maps:

    • Maps not available. Data for particular crops at particular times isn't always available. In some places, instead of a map, you'll see "n/a." When the data isn't available because a commodity was no longer produced, we've noted that in the captions. If you don't see an explanation, it's because we simply couldn't find the data.

    • County information not available. Occasionally, data for a particular county is missing from a map, and the county is shaded gray. In recent years, as farms have grown bigger, a few farms may dominate the production of a given commodity in a given county. In those cases, the Department of Agriculture withholds the data for that county to protect those farmers' privacy. Where we think significant information is missing from the map, we've noted that in the captions.
    • County boundaries. Each map shows county boundaries as they existed at that time. Although only a few counties have been created since 1860, you'll find that data for some counties isn't available for prior dates simply because the counties didn't exist.