Hyde County, N.C., farmer Ray Tooley grows grain crops and cotton on an eastern North Carolina peninsula that is part of an area of the state called black lands.

Gradual changes in coastal tides are making it more and more difficult for the fourth generation farmer to continue growing crops there.

There is a great deal of debate over the issue of global warming and global tidal change, but Tooley contends there is no doubt in his mind that saltwater intrusion is taking land out of production in his area of eastern North Carolina.

“When saltwater gets on our land you can rub a finger across the soil and a quick lick of your finger will tell you that it’s salty. In some severe cases, you can even see white, salty spots across a field,” Tooley says.

Of course, North Carolina farmers know long before taste and visual tests come into play there is an over-supply of sodium in their soils, thanks to soil testing.

While Hurricane Sandy created some minor tidal flooding in the area, last year’s Hurricane Irene left a large segment of Hyde County under water and destroyed, or at least contaminated, thousands of acres of rich farmland all along the eastern Carolina coastline.

The area in which Tooley farms in North Carolina is called ‘the black lands’. It is aptly named. The thick, rich grayish-black soils are heavy with nutrients and routinely produce three bale per acre cotton and 60 bushel per acre soybeans — both well above average state yields across the Southeast.

Most of the black lands in and around Hyde County, N.C., were re-claimed from marshland back in the 1800s. In fact, Hyde County native and long-time Extension Agriculture Specialist Mac Gibbs says the last water way, or ditch, dug in the county was back in 1950.

The rich black farmland in eastern North Carolina is criss-crossed with a series of canals. Prior to the coming of modern transportation, the canal system was used by everything from pogey boats that hauled produce out of the area to fancy riverboats that brought entertainment to the farming communities, Gibbs says.