A farmer for more than 60 years, Wilbur Earp, of Winnabow, was a pioneer in the raising of hogs indoors. He developed an extensive beef, pork and row-crop farm. He also used estate planning experts to ensure his farm will be a viable business for years to come.
As a result of his success as a diversified farmer, Earp has been selected as the North Carolina winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year award. Earp now joins nine other state winners from the Southeast as finalists; the overall winner will be announced in October at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Georgia.
After starting with 100 acres, Earp’s Funston Farms now consists of 4,500 acres, with 4,200 acres of owned land and 300 acres of rented land. The Earp family also owns timberland where he uses a forest management plan to improve wildlife habitat.
Hogs have long been prominent at Funston Farms. During the 1950s, Earp was one of the first in the state to grow hogs indoors. Current production includes some 3,000 sows. The cattle business has grown over the years as well; Earp started with 15 heifers and today has 270 cows and five bulls.
Earp has long been active in community and farm organizations, including Zion Methodist Church in Leland, Brunswick County Board of Health, Brunswick County Cattlemen’s Association, Cape Fear Farm Credit Union board and Brunswick County Pork Producers Association. He was also named River-Friendly Farmer of the Year.
He has been active in the N.C. Agricultural Foundation and was named the 2000 Pork Producer of the Year. He helped to organize the N.C. Swine Producers Association and has been a member of the N.C. Cattlemen’s Association.
His wife Mary, an integral part of the farm operation, also has a long record of service. Mary Earp received extension’s Outstanding Farm Woman in Agriculture award, the Order of the Long Leaf Pine honorary state title and was the first female member of the North Carolina Agribusiness Council. She has also been a member of the N.C. Ag Foundation, an agricultural advisor to Gov. Jim Hunt, and attended USDA goodwill tours to Europe, Brazil and Argentina.
Mary began inviting school children to the farm 40 years ago. This “Life on the Farm” day continues at Funston Farms with help from Master Gardeners and extension workers.
“We’re proud of what we do,” says Mary. “We keep an attractive place, and we’re glad to have visitors.”
Wilbur and Mary Earp have two sons, Dennis and Jeff. Dennis graduated from a two-year program at North Carolina State University and works for Duke Energy. Jeff majored in agricultural engineering at North Carolina State and now owns and runs Funston Farms. Jeff acquired the farm after Wilbur and Mary received advice from an estate planning expert.
Wilbur’s and Mary’s families both lost farms during the Great Depression. “My grandfather went from being a plantation owner to tenant farmer in one day,” says Wilbur. The Earps are proud they were able to buy back some of that land.
Audrey Brown, director of field services with North Carolina Farm Bureau, is state coordinator of the Farmer of the Year awards. Phil Ricks, a retired county extension agent, nominated Earp for the award.
“I’ve known Wilbur 40 years,” said Ricks. “He’s an innovator, a cutting-edge, early adopter of farming practices, the kind of fellow you want to know. He is an upstanding community member and great friend.”
As the North Carolina state winner of the Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo award, Earp will receive a $2,500 cash award and an expense-paid trip to the Sunbelt Expo, a $500 gift certificate from Southern States cooperative, and the choice of either $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences.
He’s now eligible for the $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner.
Swisher International, through its Swisher Sweets cigar brand, and the Sunbelt Expo are sponsoring the Southeastern Farmer of the Year awards for the 24th consecutive year. Swisher has contributed some $924,000 in cash awards and other honors to southeastern farmers since the award was initiated in 1990.