Rising seas, salt water threaten coastal farms, so farmers adapt
ENGELHARD, NC — Earl Pugh's house looks out over some of the machinery, sheds and fields of Middle Creek Farms, where the retired farmer's son now manages the cultivation of crops from the family's productive soil.
A stone's throw from the house, Pugh, also a three-term Hyde County commissioner, pointed to a rising threat to farming in a coastal region where the soil is so rich and dark it's called the Blacklands. Salt was taking a bite out of a field of cotton seedlings.
"As you look down the field, you can see the cotton is coming up and then there's several spots on this end of the field where you see just barren land," Pugh said. "That's from saltwater intrusion."
To adapt to the saltiness that's increasingly affecting coastal farmland, Pugh and others are turning to the government to convert swaths of it back to wetlands in exchange for modest payments. The restored wetlands are helping farms back away from rising water levels in the Pamlico Sound while providing natural protection from sea-level rise and salty high tides and storm surges.
As seas rise, demand for such programs is spiking in the region, but funding limitations are hampering the efforts. Some groups are pushing for an aggressive expansion in the next federal Farm Bill, characterizing the programs as rural climate adaptation strategies.
Flooding and saltwater have affected this isolated landscape since Pugh's grandfather began farming it in the 1920s. "It's nothing new," Pugh said. "It just seems to be getting a little bit worse all the time."
Pugh's son grows wheat, corn, soybeans, cotton, potatoes, green beans, broccoli and Mattamuskeet sweet onions on 7,000 acres of owned and leased land. As the farm has grown over the past century, federal tide gauge data indicates nearby water levels in the salty sound nearby have risen by more than a foot.
A March report by federal climate scientists said sea level rise is accelerating and threatening coastal areas of the Carolinas. The report said the sea could rise another foot in the next 30 years.
The problem of rising water levels
As rising levels of fossil fuel pollution trap heat in the atmosphere, water levels in oceans and water bodies connected to them are rising. Meanwhile, natural geological processes are leading to local rates of sea-level rise in northeastern North Carolina that can be nearly double those in Wilmington on the state's southern coast.
The sweeping agricultural fields, small communities and forests of the region are feeling the changes through increasing flooding and worsening impacts from toxic salt. So-called 'ghost forests,' which are stands of trees killed by saltwater intrusion but not yet fallen over, abound.
Research by Eastern Carolina University hydrologist Alex Manda shows salt is washing over the land and pushing into ditches and creeks during high tides caused by easterly winds and during storm surges, with evaporation leaving patches of salt on the land. He also describes a "triangular wedge" of saltwater pushing into the groundwater from the sound, nudging further inland and higher as seas rise.
Reide Corbett, executive director of the Coastal Studies Institute at East Carolina University, said the latest projections show the region could experience as much additional sea level during the next 30 years as it saw during the past century.
"It's important to recognize that this is a very broad coastal plain, very low lying, with very little change in elevation," Corbett said. "We shouldn't just ignore what's happening, because it's not going to change. It's not going to go away, it is likely to only get worse."
With the rising sea level and intruding salt come wetland plant species — likely similar to the species that were cleared to make way for the farmland a century or centuries ago.
Climate Central projections show Northeastern North Carolina will be a national hotspot for the inland migration of wetlands during the coming decades as seas continue to rise. Hyde County could potentially see almost 125,000 acres of new coastal wetlands by 2050. And 50,000 acres of existing wetlands are projected to drown and become open water.
Government easements pay for lost land
Aggressive water management and land cultivation is keeping wetland plant species off the best growing land. In areas hit by salt contamination, farmers are turning to the federal government for payments in exchange for allowing portions of their land to be converted to wetlands through so-called conservation easements.
"On good land, the crops are a lot better than a conservation easement," Pugh said. "Where your conservation easement looks enticing is where you have land that doesn't produce very well."
The U.S. Department of Agriculture administers a variety of conservation easement programs. Applications and interest from landowners in Hyde and other counties in northeastern North Carolina have been "growing tremendously" in recent years from a previously low rate, according to Julius George, a department official who administers its easement programs across North Carolina.
"Our biggest concern with the interest that we have is not having enough funding," George said. "Our allocation may vary from year to year, but we tend to have more applications than we actually receive funding for. Therefore it doesn't allow us to reach all applicants that do apply."
Wetlands are highly effective at protecting against storm surges and helping coastlines grow vertically as seas rise, and they provide nurseries and feeding grounds for fish and birds.
"We need to preserve our wetlands," said farmer Earl Pugh. "But we need to preserve our farmland too."
As sound levels rise, saltwater is pushing protected wetland species and aggressive invasive reeds up through ditches and canals. That clogs the drainage systems that crisscross the county and make flooding worse. Meanwhile, ditches that still harbor freshwater are being clogged by invasive alligator weed.
"Putting your land in either a 30-year or a permanent easement allows you to have the government set up an actual, effective wetland there," said Tiffany Turner, director of Climate Solutions at the nonprofit Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. The group is pushing for an expansion of federal conservation easement programs in the 2023 Farm Bill. "That's basically paying them to use their land for climate adaptation."
Changing climate and economy
Rising waters aren't just a problem for Hyde County's farmers. Lelon Howard owns a brick ranch house in Scranton, on the other side of the county from Pugh. He pointed to a nearby canal where he says high tides flood his backyard often, especially when there's a wind.
"Every evening, and sometimes it'll come in and stay for two or three days," Howard said.
"The canal goes up here to the creek, Smith Creek. We can stand here and watch it raise an inch, probably two inches if we stay here long enough."
Howard's home flooded with about three feet of water during Hurricane Florence in 2018 and he repaired it himself with help from some disaster funds. Unlike other homes in the area, his did not qualify for federal assistance to elevate it. So it remains at risk.
Hyde is among North Carolina's poorest counties. Besides farming, there are some jobs in commercial fishing and tourism, but not much else. The county's miles and miles of empty backroads are dotted with abandoned and crumbling houses, stores and gas stations — often split open Jumanji-style by marsh plants and smothered with tree canopies.
Between environmental hardships and other economic forces, the county is in decline. The population fell by 21% from 2010 to 2020, according to Census data. During that time the region was hit hard by three hurricanes. Nearby counties are seeing the same trend.
The cost of farming is increasing as more pumps, flood gates and other water control systems are needed to protect land from water and salt.
"Farmers have just completely taken many thousands of acres out of production altogether, because it's not viable to grow a crop there anymore," said Hyde County Water and Flood Control Coordinator Daniel Brinn.
Brinn spends much of his time clearing and managing water infrastructure that protects farms from flooding and salt — pervasive forces that are strangling the local economy as water levels rise in the sound.
Commercial fishing has been declining in the area, while recreational hunters and fishers continue to help buttress the local economy, according to Brinn, though new businesses tend to avoid opening operations in the remote and watery county.
"That's one thing we don't really see a whole lot of here in Hyde County, there's not a whole lot of development," Brinn said. "There's the economy and then there are a lot of people who have left because of, you know, having to deal with water."
'We've got to adapt'
Still, farmers who remain sound upbeat about the future, even as they work harder to grow food on less land. They're hopeful that the changes are cyclical or less extreme than projected.
Ray Tooley and his brother represent the fourth generation to run their family's farm in Scranton, a 40-minute drive west through Hyde County from the Pughs. He described intensifying rainfall since 2011 that exacerbated water problems on their 5,000 acres. Heavier rain is a consequence of climate change, a phenomenon seen globally and across the Carolinas.
"We've just got to learn to adapt as much as we can," Tooley said.
The Tooleys and other farmers tend to plant cotton on land affected by saltiness because it's more resilient than other crops like corn and soybeans. And they continue to increase spending on pumping and irrigation to protect the land. The high productivity of the soil means farmers can afford to spend more on such infrastructure than would be feasible in most regions.
Tooley said the U.S. Department of Agriculture payments for conservation easements net $100 to $200 per acre depending on the soil type and other factors, while a crop "might produce $1,000 an acre, and that's an asset to all of us — it produces taxes, all of those things."
To Tooley, the conservation easement initiative is a "very good program in certain situations." He pointed to land he put back into crop production after a conservation easement expired because the land had been improved by it.
"In this particular situation, it allowed us to not give up on the land," Tooley said.
This story was produced through a collaboration between WFAE public radio in Charlotte and Climate Central, a non-advocacy science and news group. Kelly Van Baalen (Climate Central) contributed data reporting.