This is the second story in a two-part look at the state of agriculture in Bladen County. Read the first story, about the hog industry, here.
By Ivey Schofield
Sean Morris looked proudly toward the 2,000 acres of land that his wife’s family has farmed for hundreds of years in Bladen County.
During the off season, a few days after the last peanuts are pulled from the earth, Morris likes to hunt on the property. He knew others would like to do the same.
So two years ago, Morris and his wife, Emily, an eighth-generation farmer, opened Bladen Outdoors. The business offers guided dove hunts to hundreds of locals and tourists, and the Morris couple plan to expand to turkey hunts as well. Last summer, Bladen Outdoors hosted a Labor Day hunt for $100 per person, with lunch included.
“Agriculture is changing. You used to be able to plant crops every year and support your family like that,” Sean Morris said. “Now, you need other forms of income.”
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In Bladen County, the largest blueberry producer in North Carolina and third-largest hog producer, agriculture is the fifth biggest employer, accounting for 9% of the total workforce.
More than 180,300 acres in Bladen County are farmed, generating $175 million per year, according to a 2017 Agriculture Census report.
But some farmers struggle to make ends meet. Bladen County farms, almost all of which are family owned, make an average farm-related income of $34,500 a year, with the government supplementing about $17,700, according to the report generated by the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Some say agritourism could be the key to supplementing local farmers’ income while sustaining the livelihood that has served families for centuries.
In 2012, a dozen farms in Bladen County were used for agritourism, a 500% increase from 2007, according to the most recent data from the USDA. Overall, those farms brought in $293,000 in revenue.
Bladen was one of 17 counties selected in 2022 to participate in the inaugural UPLIFT program, a $6.4 million, three-year initiative by the state to increase tourism in rural areas. Through workshops and grant writing assistance, the state will help locals attract tourists to the area.
Hunting is a prominent part of agritourism in Bladen County, which is known for its bear population, said Terri Dennison, executive director of the Elizabethtown-White Lake Area Chamber of Commerce, during a Jan. 18 meeting with state officials.
“We are trying to brand ourselves and promote ourselves as Mother Nature’s Playground,” she said, “so we just need to tell that story.”
In some cases, farmers have had to rethink their business models.
Decades ago, Emily Morris’ father, Dan Ward, switched from growing tobacco to peanuts on his farm outside of Clarkton.
In 1998, after dozens of lawsuits, the four largest tobacco companies agreed to a $206 billion settlement. The federal government also stopped implementing tobacco support programs for local farmers.
Now Ward rotates his crops, growing corn for three years and then soybeans and peanuts in an effort to add nitrogen to the soil and break up some of the diseases left from corn.
“It’s a big business,” Ward said. “You have to make every enterprise, whether it’s corn, soybeans or peanuts, profitable.”
Bladen Community College is trying to help locals learn how to make farms profitable through a new agribusiness technology program.
Local officials worry some farms will disappear or be bought by large corporations as farmers, with an average age of 59 in 2012, retire or die.
“My hopes for Bladen County agriculture is that we can create a sustainable workforce coming through this college that ensures Memaw and Papaw’s farm doesn’t get sold to a development farm,” said Lynn Marshburn, the program’s coordinator.
But independent farmers need help, Ward said. The cost of equipment and supplies is getting higher, cutting into farmers’ already-slim profits.
“Since we do want the farm to be sustainable for the next generation, we also have to make sure the farm is economically sustainable,” Ward said.
Ward is advocating for an updated Farm Bill, which was most recently signed into law by President Donald Trump in 2018. About every five years since the 1930s, Congress has enacted an updated Farm Bill to address agricultural and food issues, including farm commodity programs, crop insurance, conservation programs, nutrition assistance and discretionary programs within the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Through the legislation, the USDA has subsidized Ward’s crop production during low-market yields that run a deficit. But the prices used by the agency are outdated, he said.
Rep. David Rouzer, a Republican who represents Eastern North Carolina in Congress, said he hopes an updated Farm Bill will pass this year.
“Five years ago, the input costs weren’t anything close to where they are now, especially with fuel,” said Rouzer, who is the chairman of the Water Resources and Environment subcommittee for the U.S. House. “We need to adjust that safety net.”
The major holdup to passing the bill is that it is connected to legislation over work requirements for nutrition assistance for low-income families, commonly called food stamps. Rouzer said he will fight to include the work requirements that Democrats oppose.
For now, many farmers in Bladen County are banding together. Some retired farmers lease out their land to neighbors for extra income, and current farmers get access to land that would otherwise cost a fortune.
Ward said he and his wife own about 400 or 500 of the 2,000 acres he farms. They rent some from his parents, and they rent the rest from neighbors who have retired.
“There’s not enough profit in farming to be able to buy all this land,” Ward said. “I can rent it much cheaper.”
Sean and Emily Morris rent the surrounding land of their hunting preserve from their grandparents, who don’t use it during the off season.
Sean Morris said he’s excited to delve into agritourism and to share the livelihood of his wife’s family with their young daughter.
“It takes multiple generations to build it to the point it is,” he said, “and now it is our job to build it even more.”
Emily Morris, a real estate agent who hadn’t been interested in farming until marrying her husband, said she felt a sense of responsibility to continue her family’s legacy – with innovations along the way.
“You see a lot of family businesses failing,” she said, “but we’re not going to let that happen.”
Ward said he is excited about the next generation’s plans for the hunting preserve.
“This is their way of adding value back to their life and diversifying the farm,” he said of his daughter and son-in-law. “And it makes (me) proud to do the extra things to make sure this is sustainable for another generation.”