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Following a stint in the U.S. Army during the Korean War, Wilbur Earp returned to his home in Winnabow, back to where he was most comfortable: the farm.
Earp sought financial assistance to purchase land and begin his career as a farmer. When he applied for the loan, he was asked how much acreage would be used for tobacco farming.
When he told the potential lenders he didn’t plan on growing what was then the state’s leading cash crop, they quickly dismissed his application and advised him to seek financial help elsewhere.
Eventually, he was granted a loan for the purchase of land adjacent to his home. Now, more than a half-century later, Earp has developed into one of the Tar Heel State’s most diversified farmers. Most notably, he is a pioneer in the swine enterprise as Funston Farms was one of the first operations in the state to raise hogs indoors.
For his accomplishments, he has been selected as the North Carolina winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. The overall winner among nine state finalists will be announced Oct. 15 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.
“We are very proud of this award,” Earp said as he leaned back in the recliner in his Winnabow home. “I was surprised when I learned we’d been nominated. To win it is just a real honor.”
The tall, lanky 83-year old said the success would not have been possible without the help of his wife, Mary, who grew up “just across” Town Creek, not far from the Earp’s land. She worked as a teacher and later a social services worker in Brunswick County.
She eventually left those jobs to join her husband at home as the farm.
As Mary filed through a thick binder filled with notes on their preparation for the final judging process Aug. 15, she beamed with pride.
“I think about all the great farmers out there, and they picked us,” she said.
“From our meager beginnings to accomplish what we have …” she said, trailing off as she paused, smiled and turned to her husband, who nodded his head in agreement.
After starting Funston Farms with 100 acres, today the operation consists of 4,500 acres.
Earp grows tall fescue grass on 254 acres yielding four tons per acre, bermudagrass on 110 acres yielding six tons per acre, bahiagrass on 12 acres yielding three and a half tons per acre and ryegrass for winter grazing on 120 acres with an estimated yield of four and a half tons per acre.
Though most of Funston Farms’ property is connected in the Winnabow area, Earp grows row crops in Cattail Bay in neighboring Columbus County, as well.
For more than 60 years, hogs have been prominent at Funston Farms. Earp was an innovator in raising hogs indoors and became one of the first in the state to use the method. He raises hogs for Murphy-Brown LLC, a livestock production subsidiary of Smithfield Foods Inc.
Funston Farms produces about 3,000 sows. Earp raises young pigs from these sows until weaning when they are shipped to other facilities. Funston ships out about 1,300 pigs per week at an average weight of 15.8 pounds each.
Additionally, Earp began his operation with 15 heifers and today has 270 cows and five bulls. He expects to expand the cowherd. His Simmental-Angus cross cows are bred artificially.
The Earps’ son, Jeff, runs Funston Farms.
“I know I couldn’t take it with me when my time was over,” Earp said. “Because of the inflated prices, the farm would have to be sold to pay the taxes. We paid all of the estate taxes and everything else and handed the farm over to Jeff debt-free.
“It was an easy decision, really. Mary and I are completely happy with it.”
One of Jeff’s first moves was to hire Marc Green, a Bladen County native who grew up on a dairy farm, as the manager of Funston Farms.
“I’ll offer my advice to Jeff and Marc. Sometimes they listen and other times they don’t,” Earp said with a smile. “It’s a harmonious relationship between Jeff, Marc and myself.”
Earp and his wife have also made quite the names for themselves in other ways. He has served on the Brunswick County Board of Health, Brunswick County Cattlemen’s Association and the Brunswick County Pork Producers Association. He was one of many to spearhead the organization of the N.C. Swine Producers Association. He was also named the 2000 Pork Producer of the Year in North Carolina.
Mary, a breast cancer survivor, has served 17 years as a Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor. She is active in Brunswick Senior Resources’ meals-on-wheels program and serves on Brunswick Community College’s Small Business Council. She has been a member of the Daughters of the American Revolution and Colonial Dames organizations, too.
Her highly-decorated stint as a “professional volunteer,” as Earp called her, includes an Extension Outstanding Farm Woman in Agriculture award and the Order of the Long Leaf Pine honorary state title. She was the first female member of the North Carolina Agribusiness Council. She also served as an agricultural advisor to former Gov. Jim Hunt and attended U.S. Department of Agriculture goodwill tours to Europe, Brazil and Argentina.
But Mary is most proud of a tradition that has carried on at Funston Farms for 40 years. When the Earps’ oldest son, Dennis, was a first-grade student, they hosted a field trip for local elementary schools to take to Funston Farms. The trip was dubbed “Life on the Farm” day and has been held every year except one since 1973 when the school district didn’t approve the trip for budgetary reasons.
“The leaders from Master Gardeners, (Brunswick County) Extension and 4H help us put this on every year,” Mary said. “We bring the kids here and teach them classes on financing, recycling and horticulture. We take them on a hayride around the farm. We try our best to teach them their food does not come from the grocery store.”
Mary said she wants the students to understand their food was hand produced by someone.
“The noise, the odors, the dust, the dirt — you can’t have food without it. That’s what we try to instill in them,” she said.
While the trip is a learning experience for the children, it also helps educate many of the parents who attend these field trips with them, Mary said.
“We want to truly expose them to life on the farm and I think that’s what we do,” she said.
Representing state and county
Since 1990, North Carolina has had three overall winners: Eddie Johnson of Elkin in 2004, Bill Cameron of Raeford in 2007 and Thomas Porter Jr. of Concord in 2011. Earp is the first Brunswick County farmer to win the award since its inception in 1990.
As the state winner of the award, Earp will receive a $2,500 cash prize and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo from Swisher International of Jacksonville, Fla., a $500 gift certificate from Southern States Cooperative, the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia vest from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.
“We’re everyday working people,” he said. “We’re proud of our product and we’re proud of our home here (in Brunswick County).”
“As much exposure as we get for this, we’re excited for the county. This is our home.
“We’re proud of where we’re from and honored to represent Brunswick County.”
Sam Hickman is a staff writer for the Beacon. Reach him at 754-6890 or firstname.lastname@example.org.