First Colony Farms
By John Paul Lilly
Associate Professor Emeritus, Dept Soil Science
North Carolina State University
By far the largest land development scheme in eastern North Carolina in modern times was First Colony Farms, which covered 376,000 acres of land in Washington, Tyrrell, Hyde, and Dare Counties. First Colony Farms came into being in 1973 (Hypotenuse, 1977). The Rich family, led by Simon B. Rich, Jr., put together a land package that was acquired by Malcolm McLean of McLean Trucking. The bulk of the land belonged to West Virginia Pulp and Paper Company, but most of the Washington County land was acquired from Atlantic Farms. First Colony Farms was headquartered at the former Atlantic Farms grain elevator on Newland Road. Simon B. Rich, Jr. was named president and an ambitious development plan was contracted from the Research Triangle Institute with the assistance of the NC State University School of Design. Plans included land clearing for agriculture, cattle, hogs, forestry, wildlife habitat, and peat mining. At the time, crop prices were favorable and a number of other less extensive developments were also in progress. Among them was the tract now operated as Bluestone farms.

The size of the First Colony Farm operation helped galvanize the environmental community. Most of the First Colony land was swampland, and a movement was afoot to have such lands protected as wetlands. There was concern about the water quality impacts of such large-scale development.

First Colony Farms lasted only a few years. Economic conditions, environmental opposition, and problems with managing such a large operation combined to fragment the project. Corporate farming ended in 1978, and the farmland was rented to tenants. Over time, Mr. McLean sold or traded most of the land. The last parcel, some 100,000 acres of deep muck land, was involved in a bankruptcy proceeding and ultimately formed the bulk of the present Pocosin Lakes National Wildlife Refuge. Other First Colony land became the Alligator River National Wildlife refuge in Tyrrell and Dare Counties.