He also pointed out that it doesn’t take a hurricane or 8-10 inches of rain to cause problems in the black lands. “This soil holds water so well that even a half inch of rain at the wrong time can delay planting or drown a recently planted crop,” Tooley adds.

Long-time North Carolina Crop Consultant and member of the Coastal Resources Commission Bill Peele has worked with Tooley for close to 20 years.

He explains the moisture-related problems by pointing out that growers in the region have a very limited window of opportunity to plant wheat.

“A soybean-wheat double-crop works really well for farmers here, but farmers like Ray Tooley have to be right on time, because once this soil gets wet, it stays wet. If they don’t get wheat planted during typical dry spells in October and early November, they usually don’t get it planted at all,” Peele says.

Battling saltwater intrusion is difficult under any set of circumstances, but doing so on primarily rented farmland can be particularly challenging.

Tooley farms about 3,000 acres of land and has 39 landlords from whom he contracts. To make securing land even more challenging, these owners range from Hyde Country, N.C., to Chicago, New York City and several stops in between.

Fortunately, he says, years of trust between he and his brother Charles and the landowners who own the land they farm has created a sense of trust that is critical to making changes.

The downside is that growers, like Tooley, are forced to farm some land they wouldn’t normally work because it’s part of a block of land.

The biggest problem, he says, is that pieces of land will have salt contamination while other pieces of the same landowner’s land will be good. Farming the good along with the bad is difficult and getting worse because of increasing loss of land to salt contamination.

“The ideal scenario would be to put in a large, comprehensive system of ditching and pumping stations, but realistically getting multiple land-owners and conservationists and other special interest groups to agree to such a project, much less finance it, is not likely to happen,” he says.

“An old saying here in Hyde County is that you’re better off messing with a man’s wife than you are messing with his ditches — that’s how important these waterways are to people’s livelihood,” Gibbs says.