Recent innovations, including the use of GIS technology to guide farm machinery in the fields, are transforming the way farmers do their work.
They contrast starkly with farm life in Franklin County during the Great Depression.
The Soil Survey of Franklin County, published in 1931 by the United States Department of Agriculture, provides considerable insight into the county's agricultural economy during a time of financial crisis.
In addition, the pamphlet includes a detailed map that contains valuable information about the county at that time.
BACKWARD GLANCE. A portion of 1931 soil survey map of Franklin County showing the communities of Centerville and Wood. Courtesy of North Carolina Maps.
One is struck by the small scale of farm operations in the early 1930s.
The average farm contained only 54.8 acres - half the size of the typical farm 50 years earlier. More than two-thirds of the farms were operated by tenants. Most of these farm families were sharecroppers.
Land owners furnished them with animals, feed, implements, seed, and half of the fertilizer they needed for the year's crop. In return, each sharecropper gave half of his yield to his landlord. If they grew cotton-and tenants were especially skilled at cultivating this crop-the cost of ginning the bolls was divided equally.
Some residents of the county worked in the fields as hired hands. They could expect to earn 75 cents a day plus board or a dollar a day without board.
Approximately 25 to 30 percent of land in Franklin County was devoted to crops.
In addition to cotton, which grew on some 34,000 acres, farmers devoted nearly 16,000 acres to bright-leaf tobacco and 22,000 acres to corn.
Apple and peach orchards grew on nearly 19,000 acres.
Abandoned farmland had been taken over by broomsedge or young growth forests. Erosion of once-productive fields scarred much of the landscape.
Although some farmers used gasoline-powered tractors, many still relied on one- or two-horse plows. Other equipment included riding and walking cultivators, disk and spike-tooth harrows, lime and manure spreaders, fertilizer distributors, cotton planters, tobacco transplanters, and harvesters.
In addition to this snapshot of farm life during the depression, the soil survey includes a highly detailed map containing rich historical information.
Soil types are represented by different colors. The map includes roads of varying quality, railroads, bridges, creeks, fords, dams, ponds, mills, churches, and schools. Buildings, including dwellings, are represented as black squares.
Many of these features have disappeared from the landscape. It is interesting to see, for example, the number of structures in and around the communities of Centerville and Wood.
The soil survey map and similar maps of other counties in the Upper Tar River region are available in digital format
through the North Carolina Maps Web site:
Published in The Franklin Times on May 22, 2014.
Maury York is director of the Tar River Center for History and Culture at Louisburg College. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. He thanked Charles Mitchell and Bill Lord, both of the Franklin County Cooperative Extension Service, for their assistance.