Wilbur Earp was a pioneer in North Carolina in raising hogs indoors.

During his career he has also built an impressive beef, pork and row crop farm.

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 for the award. The overall winner will be announced on Tuesday, Oct. 15 at the Sunbelt Ag Expo farm show in Moultrie, Ga.

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. His farm has survived droughts and hurricanes.

Earp grows tall fescue 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. After the ryegrass, he plants millet for summer grazing with an estimated yield of four and a half tons per acre.

Per acre row crop yields include corn, 190 bushels; wheat, 65 bushels; and soybeans, 42 bushels. Most of these row crops are grown in Cattail Bay in neighboring Columbus County. Originally a swamp, Cattail Bay was converted to farmland years prior to the Earps acquiring it.

Earp’s family owns timberland where he uses a forest management plan to improve wildlife habitat. In addition, Earp provides custom consulting services such as fence building, soil sampling and fertilization for a nearby wildlife plantation.

The Earps irrigate land on their home farm using lagoon water from their hog facilities. Hogs have long been prominent at Funston Farms. During the 1950’s, Earp was one of the first in the state to grow hogs indoors.

Contracts with Murphy Brown

Now, he raises hogs on contract for Murphy Brown. Current production includes some 3,000 sows. Earp raises young pigs from these sows until weaning when they are shipped to other facilities. The farm ships out about 1,269 young pigs per week at an average weight of 15.8 pounds each. “We get a bonus for weaning 24 pigs per sow per year,” says Earp.

He also finishes hogs on contract in five houses. “We finish about 4,750 hogs each year,” says Earp. He and his family are working with Murphy Brown to convert the swine enterprise to a P-1 gilt production farm.

This would involve receiving gilts to be grown to breeding size. After farrowing for the first time and once their pigs are weaned, the sows would be transferred to other contract farms.

Earp says his farm is eligible for gilt production because his property is located at least 30 miles away from other breeding hog operations. This isolation is needed for disease prevention.

Cattle are important at Funston Farms. Earp started with 15 heifers and today has 270 cows and five bulls. His Simmental-Angus cross cows are bred artificially with semen from top sires. Earp anticipates expanding the cowherd. He’s exploring new marketing efforts for bred heifers to go along with tele-auction sales of weaned and backgrounded calves conducted by producers from southeastern North Carolina.

Earp has been active in community and farm organizations. Some of these include Zion Methodist Church in Leland, Brunswick County Board of Health, Brunswick County Cattlemen’s Association, Cape Fear Farm Credit board and Brunswick County Pork Producers Association. He was also named River-Friendly Farmer of the Year.

He has been active in the North Carolina Agricultural Foundation and was named the 2000 Pork Producer of the Year. He helped to organize the North Carolina Swine Producers Association and has been a member of the North Carolina Cattlemen’s Association.

Wife is distinguished leader

His wife Mary is a distinguished leader. She has been a local and state Extension advisor and served 17 years as a Soil and Water Conservation District supervisor.

She has been active in a meals-on-wheels program of Brunswick Senior Resources, Cape Fear Resource Conservation and Development, Brunswick Community College Small Business Council and Wilmington District United Methodist Women. She led efforts to establish Brunswick County’s Voluntary Agricultural District, and their farm was the first one enrolled.

Mary has also been in the Daughters of the American Revolution and Colonial Dames. She 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 North Carolina Ag Foundation, an ag advisor to Gov. Jim Hunt, and she attended USDA goodwill tours to Europe, Brazil and Argentina.

A breast cancer survivor, Mary began inviting school children to their farm 40 years ago. This “Life on the Farm” day continues at Funston Farms with help from Master Gardeners and Extension workers.

The farm has also hosted Wilmington’s Rotary Club, the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association and veterinary medicine students from North Carolina State University. “We’re proud of what we do,” says Mary. “We keep an attractive place, and we’re glad to have visitors.”

Wilbur and Mary 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 this land.

Wilbur joined the Army during the Korean War and began farming after military service. Early in their marriage, Mary worked as a teacher, welfare worker and Extension agent. “It took both incomes to make ends meet,” recalls Wilbur. As the farm became established, Mary left her off-farm work. “I left a paying job for an unpaid job,” she says.

Today, Wilbur advises Jeff. “The first thing Jeff did was to hire Marc Green as farm manager,” says Wilbur. “Marc is like a family member and we hope to keep him for a long time.”

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.

Cutting edge operator

“I’ve known Wilbur 40 years,” says 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 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.

He’s now eligible for $15,000 cash prize that will go to the overall winner. Other prizes for the overall winner include use of a Massey Ferguson tractor for a year from Massey Ferguson North America, another $500 gift certificate and a Heritage gun safe from Southern States, the choice of either another $1,000 in PhytoGen cottonseed or a second $500 donation to a designated charity from Dow AgroSciences, and a Columbia jacket from Ivey’s Outdoor and Farm Supply.

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.

Previous state winners from North Carolina include John Vollmer of Bunn, 1990; Kenneth Jones of Pink Hill, 1991; John Howard, Jr. of Deep Run, 1992; Carlyle Ferguson of Waynesville, 1993; Dick Tunnell of Swan Quarter, 1994; Allan Lee Baucom of Monroe, 1995; Scott Whitford of Grantsboro, 1996; Williams Covington, Sr. of Mebane, 1997; Phil McLain of Statesville, 1998; Earl Hendrix of Raeford, 1999; Reid Gray of Statesville, 2000; Rusty Cox of Monroe, 2001; Craven Register of Clinton, 2002; Frank Howey, Jr. of Monroe, 2003; Eddie Johnson of Elkin, 2004; Danny McConnell of Hendersonville, 2005; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2006; Bill Cameron of Raeford, 2007; V. Mac Baldwin of Yanceyville, 2008; Fred Pittillo of Hendersonville, 2009; Bo Stone of Rowland, 2010; Thomas Porter, Jr. of Concord, 2011; and Gary Blake of North Wilkesboro, 2012.

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.                                                                                                                                          

A distinguished panel of judges will visit Earp’s farm, along with the farms of the other nine state finalists, during the week of Aug. 12-16. The judges this year include

John McKissick, a longtime University of Georgia Extension ag economist from Athens, Ga.; farmer Brian Kirksey of Amity, Ark., the overall winner in 2008; and John Woodruff, retired University of Georgia Extension agronomist from Tifton, Ga., who specialized in soybeans for many years.

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