By Sarah Nagem
Ralph Carter grew up in blueberry fields in Bladen County, learning the ins and outs of the family business his parents started in the early 1950s.
Now 59, he continues to run Carter Farms near Elizabethtown, where he sways to the whims of weather to grow more than 400 acres of blueberries each year.
Carter said he hasn’t decided what will become of the farm if he retires. His only child left Bladen to attend Campbell University and now works in clinical research.
“There aren’t a lot of young people in the farming industry, period – not just blueberries,” Carter said.
But he’s optimistic about the future of farming in Bladen, tucked in the southeastern corner of North Carolina near the coast.
“I think people will fall in line,” he said. “There is some interest there, and I’m hoping there will be more.”
Bladen County leaders hope so, too. Educating young people about jobs in agriculture-related fields is among the priorities listed in the county’s new strategic plan.
The plan, which was adopted by county commissioners in February after months of brainstorming and gathering feedback from citizens, is meant to serve as a guidepost for Bladen for the next decade.
It has six “focus areas” – environment and agriculture; health; education; economy; safety and preparedness; and infrastructure, housing and transit.
“We’re trying to be intentional in working together as a community to shape our future in a positive way,” said Bladen County Manager Greg Martin.
Like much of rural North Carolina, Bladen County saw a drop in population between 2010 and 2020. The county was home to about 30,000 residents in 2020– a 16% decline over a 10-year span, according to the U.S. Census.
However, Bladen is sandwiched between two growing counties – Cumberland to the northwest and Pender to the east.
Martin said he expects Bladen to see some growth from the Fayetteville area in Cumberland County, home to Fort Bragg. But it’s not happening yet. The county lost an additional 81 residents between April 2020 and July 2021, the Bladen Journal reported.
One of the challenges to growth, according to Martin, is a lack of housing, which is also addressed in the strategic plan.
Originally home to the Waccamaw Native American tribe, Bladen is now called the “Mother County” of North Carolina. Fifty-five of the state’s 100 counties were formed from Bladen’s land, according to the North Carolina History Project.
Bladen County was in the national spotlight in 2018 for a scandal that ultimately led to an overturned election and felony charges against a local political operative.
Republican Mark Harris’ victory for a congressional seat was thrown out amid an investigation into ballot harvesting. As a result of the investigation, operative Leslie McCrae Dowless was accused of financial crimes unrelated to his work on the election. He was later convicted.
The New York Times visited Bladen to produce a five-part podcast called “The Improvement Association,” a deep dive into politics in the county.
However, Bladen is perhaps best known for hogs. Smithfield Foods employs more than 5,000 people at its hog plant in Tar Heel, Martin said.
Agriculture remains a huge part of life here. More than 180,000 acres of land in Bladen were used as farms in 2017, an increase of 54% from 2012, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Crops grown in Bladen include corn, soybeans, cotton, peanuts and wheat, said Becky Spearman, the county director for the N.C. Cooperative Extension.
The soil is also great for growing blueberries, making Bladen the largest blueberry producer in North Carolina, according to the N.C. Department of Agriculture & Consumer Services.
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“The extremely successful parts of our economy are built around agriculture,” said Chuck Heustess, economic development director for Bladen County.
As the business of farming continues to evolve, Heustess said agriculture will likely continue to be an economic driver in Bladen for a very long time.
“In times of recession and challenge, people aren’t going to quit eating,” he said.
One of the goals in the county’s strategic plan is to decrease the average age of farmers.
Carter said he was pleased about the new agribusiness technology program at Bladen Community College. The program focuses on entrepreneurship, field training, the economy and government policies, according to the school’s website.
At his farm, nearly half of the early-variety blueberry crop was lost during a freeze two weeks ago, Carter said. He took it in stride.
“In farming, you’ve got to love the soil,” he said. “You’ve got to love the land.”
Lack of housing
Carter said he hopes Bladen will grow in population. Not too much, he said, but enough.
Newcomers would need a place to live, and that can be tough to find in Bladen. Martin said concerns about a lack of housing came up time and time again while creating the strategic plan.
There are more than 1,500 job openings in Bladen County, Heustess said. But there aren’t enough homes for nurses, teachers, machinists and others.
The new plan says Bladen should “invest in market driven housing options that have the needed infrastructure to support growth.”
That’s because private developers likely won’t go into Bladen County to build subdivisions without some sort of financial incentive, Heustess said.
They can make more money elsewhere, where the population is denser and water and sewer lines might already be in place, according to Heustess.
“I think we’re going to have to make it happen,” he said of growth in Bladen.
The county and some towns are starting to create a list of available plots of land that might be suitable for housing developments, Heustess said. Local governments could pitch in to pay for infrastructure for the sites, which would reduce costs for developers, he said.
Tourism, education, health
Bladen County has what it needs to become a tourist attraction, Martin said. The Cape Fear ATV-MX Park is a popular spot for adventure seekers, and the Cape Fear River is good for fishing.
Increasing tourism is part of the strategic plan, along with increasing the number of business start-ups, to help boost the county’s economy.
As for education priorities, the plan says Bladen should “recruit and retain highly qualified teachers,” upgrade facilities and provide parents with more resources.
To help improve residents’ health, the plan calls for using a mobile unit in which nurses and paramedics could visit communities.
So many factors play into building a bright future for Bladen, according to county leaders.
Counties that are home to North Carolina’s largest cities are focused on guiding and managing growth, Heustess said. In counties like Bladen, he said, the focus is on creating growth.
“I think we have the opportunity to grow,” Heustess said, “but I don’t think it’s going to happen in our community or a lot of the other rural communities without an intentional plan.”
Carter said he will wait and see what happens. Just like he can’t control the weather, he said, he can’t control how many people leave or move into Bladen County.
“It’s a little slower pace,” he said of Bladen, “and I like that slower pace.”
Follow Sarah Nagem on Twitter: @sarah_nagem