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Eric Cahoon finds cotton success in the N.C. Blacklands

The eight counties that make up the Blacklands are near the Atlantic Coastline, making storms and hurricanes a never-ending challenge with saltwater intrusion a worry for many Blackland farmers.

John Hart, Associate Editor

June 10, 2024

7 Min Read
Eric and Kellum Cahoon
Eric and son Kellum Cahoon value their working relationship on the farm, and Eric says Kellum is particularly helpful in adapting new technology to bring more precision to the operation. Kellum joined the farm full-time three years ago, after completing his studies at East Carolina University. John Hart

Of all the farmland across the United States of America, the most unique may be the Blacklands of North Carolina. In many ways, it has the feel of the Mississippi Delta or the Midwest. While the Blacklands is primarily known for producing grain and Irish potatoes, Eric Cahoon of Hyde County has found success producing cotton. 

The eight counties that make up the Blacklands are near the Atlantic Coastline, making storms and hurricanes a never-ending challenge with saltwater intrusion a worry for many Blackland farmers. But the rich, black soil with its high organic content makes for some of the most productive corn and soybean yields anywhere in the world. 

If the weather cooperates and a growing season is free of storms and hurricanes, the Blacklands has the potential to produce 300-bushel corn, 100-bushel soybeans and 140-bushel wheat — but that is a big IF. In the Blacklands, the problem has always been too much water. 

The Blacklands was originally a cypress tree swamp where visionary farmers began to drain the land and clear the trees beginning in the 1960s, thereby creating some of the most productive farmland anywhere.

The right cotton varieties 

Like other farmers, Cahoon grows soybeans and corn. But cotton is his love and passion and the money crop on his 2,400 acres near the village of Engelhard. This year, roughly half the acreage is dedicated to grains and half to cotton. 

Related:Rare, ideal weather boosts Carolina Blackland cotton planting

Cahoon has found success growing cotton in the Blacklands, achieving average yields near three bales per acre and often achieving four bales per acre. For Cahoon, success comes down to attentive management and choosing the right cotton varieties. 

“A variety may work for your neighbor but not for you. The technology is changing so fast. New varieties come every year, and a variety three or four years old may not be competitive anymore.  We usually plant six varieties. A lot of people push fiber quality, but yield is where the money is,” Cahoon says from his tractor on May 2 as he plants his 2024 cotton crop. 

For Cahoon, storm tolerance and earliness are other vital traits in cotton variety selection. He likes to wrap up his cotton harvest by November, doing all he can to get his crop out of the field before the threat of storms or hurricanes. 

“We will have something. It may not be a devastating hurricane, but we will have a storm just about every year. We are sitting on a peninsula out in the ocean. I like to say I farm cotton as far east as anyone can in the United States,” Cahoon says. 

Related:Cotton planting hitting the high gears now

Cahoon likes to spread his risk by planting varieties from most of the cottonseed companies. Seed companies also turn to Cahoon to test varieties on his farm. He has been planting test plots for 10 years now. This year he is examining varieties from Phytogen, Deltapine, Stoneville, and Dynagrow. Cahoon is also a Deltapine NPE (New Product Evaluator) grower which he says is rewarding, particularly the comradery with other NPE growers from across the Cotton Belt.  

Cahoon’s cotton beginning 

Cahoon, 59, started farming full-time with his dad J.B. Cahoon and Uncle Henry Cahoon in 1987. He took over management of the farm in 1988 when his dad left to run a convenience store and his uncle retired.  

Prior to returning to the family farm, Cahoon completed the ag program at Pitt Community College in Winterville then went to work with independent crop consultant Billy McLawhorn, where he scouted and did soil sampling and other tasks. He then returned home to Hyde County and went to work with retired NCSU Extension weed specialist Lafayette “Fate” Thompson, Jr., who had started his own crop consulting company. 

After 10 years of growing grain on the farm, in 1998, Cahoon decided to try something new: growing cotton. 

“A crop consultant came in and told me cotton would be a good mix for the Blacklands. Then our county agent, Mac Gibbs, told us that we could grow good cotton here. He said, ‘you can grow three- to four-bale cotton.’ I said ‘Mac, that sounds crazy. There is no way we can do that,’” Cahoon says. 

Related:Study confirms cotton farmers face major deer problem

But Cahoon decided to give cotton a shot anyway. It was a steep learning curve. Early on they averaged 1.5 to 2 bales per acre, but yields began to gradually improve. With advancement in cotton seed technology, they were able to improve yields even more, to achieve three bales or more over the past 10 years. 

“Cotton is totally different than a corn or soybean crop. Cotton is more responsive and rewarding. If you put in the effort, cotton will reward you. Cotton kept our farm going over the past 20 years. I like the challenge of cotton; it responds to you. Everything you do to cotton it responds,” Cahoon says. 

Water management 

Cahoon plants his cotton using stale seedbed because the crop likes to grow in a bed in the poorly drained, dark soils on his farm. And like all Blackland farmers, removing excess water is a must. 

“Part of our land is artificially drained with a dike system with a pump that lifts the water out. Some of this is just because of our low elevation, but some if is because of saltwater intrusion. We are diking a lot of land. We put in pipes with flap gates to control the flow of water in and out. The salt will actually get into the land to the point where you can’t grow anything,” Cahoon explains. 

Indeed, the rich black soil in Blacklands makes them highly productive, but Cahoon says if saltwater intrudes, the ground will become useless in producing crops. Due to their heavy nature and high organic matter, Blackland soils hold salts more than the sandier soils, common in other parts of North Carolina. 

“That is why we put in corn to rotate some grass crops into our land. Grass crops help pull the salt out of the soil. Cotton is somewhat tolerant to low levels of salt, but cotton doesn’t pull the salt out,” Cahoon says. 

This year, Cahoon started planting cotton on April 25 and wrapped up on May 15. He said he was blessed this year because planting conditions were mostly ideal, a rarity in the Blacklands, where it is often cool and wet at planting time. 

“Last year, we had 6.1 inches of rain on the 27th of April, so we didn’t start planting cotton until the 8th of May. It took that long for everything to get dried out. Our goal is to have all of our cotton planted by May 15. We like to plant early so we will be able to harvest early,” he says. 

“Storms decide when we defoliate. Defoliating early is better for us. If we can start harvesting early, it’s good. We usually start the first week of October. I would like it to be done by the 1st of November. Picking the right variety is very important for yield. But Mother Nature is what really drives our yields here. If we can miss out on storms, we have a really good chance to grow a good high yielding crop.”  

Family life 

Cahoon’s wife Tammy is a partner in the farm and keeps the books. Their daughters Karissa Rogers, married to Jordan Rogers, and Katie Cahoon work off the farm. Son Kellum joined the farming operation three years ago, after completing his studies at East Carolina University. Kellum and his wife Macy are expecting their first child in October, the first grandchild for Eric and Tammy.  

“I always knew that I wanted to come back to the farm, so it was an easy decision. It’s always what I wanted to do. It doesn’t feel like work to me, most days. Dad’s the boss, but I’m learning, trying to see what I can do. I try to help him improve some things,” Kellum says. 

Both father and son say they value their working relationship, and Eric says Kellum is particularly helpful in adapting new technology to improve the precision on their farm. They plan to stick with cotton, a crop they both love to grow. Cahoon says the comradery of the cotton industry is unique. 

“Cotton farmers are unique. They are willing to give you ideas and help you if you got a problem. They share a passion for producing a good cotton crop,” he says. 

Read more about:

High Cotton

About the Author(s)

John Hart

Associate Editor, Southeast Farm Press

John Hart is associate editor of Southeast Farm Press, responsible for coverage in the Carolinas and Virginia. He is based in Raleigh, N.C.

Prior to joining Southeast Farm Press, John was director of news services for the American Farm Bureau Federation in Washington, D.C. He also has experience as an energy journalist. For nine years, John was the owner, editor and publisher of The Rice World, a monthly publication serving the U.S. rice industry.  John also worked in public relations for the USA Rice Council in Houston, Texas and the Cotton Board in Memphis, Tenn. He also has experience as a farm and general assignments reporter for the Monroe, La. News-Star.

John is a native of Lake Charles, La. and is a  graduate of the LSU School of Journalism in Baton Rouge.  At LSU, he served on the staff of The Daily Reveille.

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