Rise and Fall of Tobacco Farming in North Carolina

Tobacco has been deeply ingrained in North Carolina’s history and economy since the colonial days. For generations, tobacco farming was a way of life and engine of prosperity.

But the industry has substantially declined over the past few decades.

Tobacco’s Roots Run Deep in North Carolina’s History

Tobacco was first grown in North Carolina starting in the 1660s after the colony was established. It quickly emerged as a major cash crop and export for the colony.

For centuries thereafter, tobacco farming spread across North Carolina and was pivotal to the state’s economy.

Generations of families sustained themselves by growing tobacco.

The town of Durham became linked with tobacco manufacturing in the 1800s once Washington Duke built a tobacco company there, producing popular smoking tobacco blends.

North Carolina’s Prominence in Flue-Cured Tobacco

North Carolina produces two main types of tobacco: flue-cured and burley. Flue-curing utilizes heated barns to dry out tobacco leaves.

Flue-cured tobacco thrives in North Carolina’s sandy, mineral-rich soil. North Carolina ranks first in flue-cured tobacco production nationally and second in total tobacco output behind Kentucky.

At its peak in the 1980s, North Carolina harvested over 600 million pounds of flue-cured tobacco.

Steady Erosion of North Carolina’s Tobacco Farming

Tobacco farming in North Carolina has declined steadily for decades. The state now has only around 1,300 tobacco farms, down from over 10,000 in the 1980s.

In 2020, North Carolina’s tobacco production dropped to about 110 million pounds, the lowest level since the 1920s. Many tobacco farmers risk shutting down.

Some have shifted to other crops like soybeans, wheat, and produce. Cigarette smoking has fallen considerably, cutting demand for tobacco.

Federal tobacco subsidies have also ended. While still culturally important, tobacco now plays a relatively minor role in North Carolina’s diverse economy.

Tobacco put North Carolina on the map centuries ago. But with tobacco farming now a shadow of its former self, the future looks uncertain for the state’s remaining tobacco farms.

[Related Post: Top 5 Crops In North Carolina]