North Carolina’s agricultural landscape is dominated by 5 major cash crops: tobacco, sweet potatoes, cotton, soybeans, and peanuts. These staple crops have deep roots in North Carolina’s farming history and continue to drive the state’s robust agricultural economy.
From the majestic mountains to the coastal plains, North Carolina boasts a thriving agricultural industry that encompasses a wide range of crops and commodities.
With 46,000 farms spread across the state, North Carolina’s agriculture is characterized by its diversity and economic significance
1. Tobacco: The Cash Crop Champion
North Carolina has a long and rich history of tobacco farming, which has spanned almost three centuries. The state produces two styles of tobacco: flue-cured and burley.
North Carolina ranks first in production of flue-cured tobacco.
However, tobacco farming in North Carolina has been shrinking for years, with fewer tobacco farms producing less tobacco and playing an increasingly smaller role in the state’s economy.
Inflation, a trade war, COVID-19, and reduced US consumption have all contributed to this decline.
Despite this, the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences at North Carolina State University provides extensive educational and research resources to the tobacco farming community.
There are also changes happening in multi-generational tobacco farming, with some farmers transitioning to other crops.
For more info on tobacco farming in North Carolina, check out my article here, Rise and Fall of Tobacco Farming in North Carolina.
2. Sweet Potatoes: North Carolina’s Sweet Success
As the top sweet potato producing state, North Carolina accounts for about half of the nation’s crop.
This versatile root vegetable is ingrained in North Carolina’s agricultural identity, even being named the official state vegetable.
The state’s farmers harvest over 100,000 acres of sweet potatoes annually, with the orange-fleshed Covington variety dominating production.
Hundreds of family farms across North Carolina’s coastal plain and piedmont regions work to supply the country with this nutritious crop.
Beyond their popularity at Thanksgiving, sweet potatoes are valued for their culinary versatility, lending flavor and nutrition to everything from breakfast dishes to tacos.
They also deliver an array of health benefits as one of nature’s most nutrient-dense foods.
The North Carolina Sweet Potato Commission represents growers and promotes sweet potatoes year-round, not just during the fall season.
With their delicious taste and wealth of nutrients, it’s easy to see why North Carolina sweet potatoes continue to be a beloved crop both in the state and across America.
3. Cotton: A Staple Crop
With its prime growing conditions, North Carolina stands as the 7th largest cotton producing state in America.
The majority of cotton cultivation occurs across the Coastal Plain, where approximately 450,000 acres are planted annually.
Cotton’s roots in North Carolina stretch back over a century and a half, establishing itself as a key agricultural commodity.
The crop’s legacy is preserved through organizations like the North Carolina Cotton Producers Association, founded in 1951 to advocate for cotton farmers’ interests.
Cotton remains intertwined with the state’s agricultural identity, though acreage has declined from its peak. Farmers may “double-crop” cotton and wheat in the same fields during cooperative seasons.
But recent years have brought challenges like inflation and supply chain disruptions.
Yet cotton retains an important economic and social role in North Carolina’s farming communities.
The soft, fluffy bolls will continue to be spun into textiles, absorbed into bandages, and integrated into various consumer products thanks to the efforts of North Carolina cotton producers.
Want to learn more about cotton farming in NC? Go Here, Cotton Farming in NC: Thriving Industry.
4. Soybeans: The Versatile Legume
North Carolina is a significant producer of soybeans in the United States, ranking 17th in the nation in soybean production in 2003.
Over the past five years (2016 to 2020), the North Carolina soybean crop has averaged around $557 million, and in a good year, the crop is worth as much as $674 million to farmers.
In 2021, North Carolina farmers planted 1.650 million acres of soybeans, which represented a turnaround in acreage, which had been on the decline over the past four years from the most recent high.
Soybeans have the most significant footprint in row crop acres in North Carolina, and most soybean acres in North Carolina are in the eastern part of the state in the coastal plain.
Leading soybean counties in 2021, based on planted acres, include Robeson, Union, Beaufort, Pitt, Sampson, Wayne, and Duplin.
The most recent five-year (2017 to 2021) average production is 59.574 million bushels, with an average yield of 37.2 bushels per acre over the same period.
The North Carolina Soybean Production Guide provides information to growers about soybean production in North Carolina, including economic trends and forecasts.
5. Peanuts: A Nutty Affair
North Carolina is a significant producer of peanuts in the United States, ranking fifth in the nation in peanut production.
Peanuts are grown in more than 22 North Carolina counties, with most production occurring in nine counties in the northeastern part of the state.
In 2022, North Carolina growers harvested 116,000 acres of peanuts, compared with 68,000 acres harvested in South Carolina.
The state produces enough peanuts each year to make nearly 4 billion PB&J sandwiches.
The North Carolina Peanut Growers Association represents peanut farmers in the state and provides resources to help growers improve their operations.
The USDA provides county estimates of peanut acreage, yield, and production in North Carolina.