Wilson County Agriculture
Agriculture in Wilson County began developing when settlers came from the Chesapeake Bay area and Isle of Wight County in Virginia . They came along Contentnea Creek and set up homes within three or four miles of Wilson . Francis Roundtree owned two large tracts of land on Contentnea Creek in 1739. Land patents were issued for most of Wilson County lands during the 1740's. According to information gathered by former County Extension Chairman W.D. Lewis, several clearing had been made along the lower half of Contentnea Creek, Toisnot Swamp and Town Creek by the 1760's. The fields of that day were studded with stumps and trees. Open range law existed, and cattle and hogs were put into the open woods to fend for themselves.
After the Revolutionary War, settlers of English and Irish descent continued immigration from Virginia . They quickly established plantation sized holdings in the more level areas of the eastern and southwestern parts of the county. Later, immigrants of poor means came into the more rolling areas of the western side of the county. This can be seen as the small owners outnumber the tenants west of Wilson , while the opposite is true on the east side.
Until 1880, the tar and turpentine industry was the main source of cash. The agriculture of the early day settlers was a subsistence type, growing corn, cotton, rice, wheat, home gardening, hogs, sheep, and cattle.
Corn has always been the leading subsistence crop in the county. Cotton became an important cash crop immediately after 1865. On September 2, 1890 , the first market sale of tobacco was made at Wilson . From that time, the tobacco acreage increased very rapidly. The minor subsistence crops from 1879 to 1909 were oats, wheat, cow, peas, hay and sweet potatoes. With the exception of wheat, the acreage of all these crops increased considerably between 1879 and 1909.
The census reports that in 1919, corn yielded an average of 24 bushels to the acre. This corn was fed mostly to hogs and work animals. The crop was grown in all parts of the county. Cotton, which is next to corn in acreage, yielded an average of 8 / 10 bale to the acre in 1919. This crop was generally grown over the county. Tobacco was third in point of acreage. The census of 1920 reports that in 1919 the average yield was 752 pounds to the acre. This crop was also grown in all parts of the county. According to the 1920 census, there were 16,000 apple trees, 8,000 pear trees, 750 peach trees, 562 cherry trees, and 1,200 grape vines in the county.
The livestock industry was of comparatively slight importance. The estimate of animals sold and slaughtered in 1919 was $775,000.00, or about 5% of the total value o all agricultural products. A large number of mules, horses, and milk cows were shipped in annually and resold at the local stables. Several dairies, which supplied the town of Wilson with milk, were in the vicinity. The dairy cows were Holstein and Jersey , or grades of these breeds. The 1920 census reported the value of dairy products, excluding those used at home at $38,909.00. Practically every farmer had one cow and from one to four hogs. Poultry and eggs for home consumption were produced on almost all farms. A few were sold or traded at the local stores. The value of poultry and eggs in 1919 was #298,000.00. The total value of all agricultural products in 1919 was $298,000.00, of which $13,675,000.00 was the approximate value of tobacco and cotton.
Less than 20% of the 1790 population were slaves, meaning that the plantation system never became as strong as it was in Edgecombe, Pitt and Wayne counties. The proportion of blacks grew to around 40% during the Civil War. Cotton became an important cash crop immediately after the Civil War and reigned until World War I. Soon, about 40% of the cultivated lands were in cotton. Elm City boasted of being the second largest cotton market on the Atlantic Coastline Railroad. Wilson was also a large cotton market. Between 1880 and 1920 there was big cotton production around here, according to county historian Hugh Johnston. However, little by little, the production of tobacco pushed out the production of cotton after 1920. Tobacco was the main dollar crop. At one time, there was more than 20,000 acres of cotton grown in the county. Then the boll weevil struck in the late 20's. The grey beetle's larvae caused rotting of plants when they hatched in immature bolls of cotton. Wilson County agent Bill Adams wrote in 1929 that farmers would be forced to discontinue growing cotton.
Modern technology came, bringing machines for planting, cultivating, and harvesting. Chemicals came: fertilizers, insecticides, herbicides, and defoliants. But the boll weevil stayed, and yields continued at about a half a bale per acre. Acreages of cotton began dropping from 43,804 in 1925, to 14,663 in 1945, to 10,695 in 1955, to 6,853 in 1965. Cotton acreage fell to only 67 acres in 1975. Since then cotton has grown in a small way. Total for 1983 was 249 acres.
The census of 1920 shows 77.5% of the county in farms, with the remainder in wooded areas. The forest is found mainly in the swamp areas on slopes approaching the streams. The trees are prevailing pine with some sweet gum and hardwood on the uplands, and gum, sweet gum, and a few pines in the swamp. Some of the forest was being cut for lumber, but most of it was reserved for future growth, for firewood supply for country homes, and for use in making tobacco sticks or fuel for curing tobacco.
In 1920, the average value of all farm property was $7,000 per farm. Of this amount, 75% represented land, 14% buildings, 3.6% implements, and 6.7% domestic animals. The farm homes were, as a rule, substantial and nicely planted. Many of the tenant homes were small. The bars were sufficiently large to house the work animals and feed. The tobacco barns were constructed mostly of logs or planks. Barbed wire was used for fences. Many of the farms were worked with one horse implements, including breaking plows, spiked tooth harrows, and walking cultivators. Both horses and mules were used as work animals, but the mules predominated.
In 1919, 75% of the total area of the county was in farms, which averaged 41 acres in size. The average acres of improved land to the farm was 22 acres. The farms ranged in size from about 10 acres to about 100 acres. There were some holdings which ranged in size from about 1,000 to about 2,000 acres in size. The larger farms were commonly divided into smaller tracts and sub-let to tenants.
In 1920, the population of the county was 36,813, of which 26,201 were rural. The average density of the rural population was 70.2 persons to the square mile. The rural sections were fairly evenly populated.
The average assessed value of land in 1920 was $127.18 an acre. The selling price, however, ranged from $100.00 to as much as $500.00 per acre. Good, average land brought about $150.00 an acre. The price of the pocosson land was dependant usually on the value of the standing timber.
Farm values continued to increase until about 1980, when the peak in farm prices was seen. Since that time, there has been a gradual decline in prices of farmland in Wilson County . In 1940, there were 2001,000 acres in farms in the county with an average size of 49 acres. In 1983, there were 143,496 acres in farms in the county with an average size of 158 acres. Crop yields in 1940 for corn were 22 bushels to the acre. That year there were 40,000 acres of corn grown. By 1980, the average yield in the county had risen to 66 bushels, with 36,100 acres planted that year. Tobacco acreage in 1940 was 29,167 acres. The average yield per acre was 1,001 pounds per acre. This had also risen in 1983, to an average yield per acre of 2,285 pounds with 9,730 acres being planted in the county. Soybean and wheat yields continued to increase over the years. During these four decades, there was a continued increase in the use of fertilizer and chemicals such as herbicides, insecticides, fumigants, and defoliants. All of this was part of the modern area in farming.
Tractors first began to appear on the farm in Wilson County in the late 30's. The number of tractors increased over the decades. Combines, corn pickers, pick-up hay balers and other modern types of farming equipment came on the scene in the early 50's in large numbers. That also was the same time that farms began to decline in number and increase in size as the man in agriculture could utilize larger acreages with fewer laborers through the use of modern day technology. Electricity came into the county some time in the early 40's. This helped to make life on the farms much easier and also increased the use of automatic milkers, small electric motors, and other electrical labor saving devices.