Funston Farms Earns NC Farmer of the Year
Wilbur Earp of Funston Farms, recently named North Carolina Farmer of the Year, is quick to share the credit of his success with his wife and family.
PHOTOGRAPHY BY Ethan Sigmon
Wilbur Earp is a man who deserves his rest. But at age 84, he shows few signs of slowing down.
On Funston Farms, his family farm in Winnabow, he and his wife, Mary, raised two boys and countless heads of hogs and cattle. Farming is in the Earp family’s blood, and the Earp family’s blood has likewise been tied to the land of Brunswick County since the 1730s, when his first ancestors showed up in this lush, wild countryside. For more than two centuries, the Earp family has owned and farmed land across Brunswick County, but none so successful as Funston Farms.
The particular patch of Brunswick County that is Funston Farms has been in the family for over 100 years, if you forgive that little hiccough during the Great Depression. That’s when his grandfather, a sustenance farmer, lost the farm in foreclosure. Fortunately, it wasn’t too long until Earp’s father was able to make a down payment on the then 35-acre farm, bringing it back into family control. Wilbur was born in 1930, at the beginning of the Depression, and for him entry into the farming life was a baptism by fire.
“Farming’s hard,” he says. “We’ve never had it easy. I learned that lesson early, watching my father struggle at the height of the Depression. We were just about starved out during the Depression, and that was really my introduction to how difficult things can be on the farm.”Earp took those lessons to heart. When it was his turn to run Funston Farms, he did so magnificently, facing and overcoming innumerable obstacles, turning the farm into a profitable venture (a rare feat in agriculture) and transferring it to his son, Jeff, a fourth-generation Brunswick County farmer. But not before he was recognized for his work, determination, ingenuity, accomplishments and cumulative total of his life’s work.
In 2013 Earp was named North Carolina winner of the 2013 Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo Southeastern Farmer of the Year. The Swisher Sweets/Sunbelt Expo is one of the largest agricultural expos in the nation, and this award is among the most prestigious. Each year they recognize the top farms and farmers from across 10 southeastern states, with a panel of distinguished agricultural experts visiting each farm and farmer and settling on the best. In North Carolina, three farms made the cut. After visits were paid to each of them, Funston Farms was the clear frontrunner.
“[The judges] look at everything: the farm’s start date and circumstance of origination, where you are now, how you got here from where you started, what sort of preparations you’ve made to continue the farm’s legacy, every aspect of your business operations and even what work you do in the community,” says Earp. “Fortunately, Mary’s a professional volunteer.”
Mary Earp, whose family roots in the area go back as deep as her husband’s, was once an eighth-grade teacher at Sunset Beach, and that’s where she caught the volunteer bug.
“In teaching, you can see where you’re making a difference, you can really tell how your contribution is affecting the world around you,” she says. “After teaching, I wanted to continue having an impact, so I began to volunteer.”
The impact Mary has had (and continues to have) on Brunswick County is broad and varied. From volunteering her time and agricultural expertise to the Brunswick County Center of the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Agency to sitting on the State Agricultural Advisory Council (under Governor Jim Hunt) and working for more than a decade with Brunswick Senior Resources, Inc., she’s touched all sorts of folks, from professional farmers to backyard farmers to former farmers. But that’s not all. As a breast cancer survivor, she’s part of the Brunswick Pink Angels, a group that makes care packages and offers support to the women of Brunswick County who have been diagnosed with breast cancer.
In 2009 Mary was honored with induction into The Order of the Long Leaf Pine, an organization that recognizes the contributions of North Carolinians to our state. Her community outreach, coupled with this honor and the fact that twice she’s participated in the United States Department of Agriculture International Tours (to discover and spread best practices among the agricultural community) and that she, along with her husband, has hosted “Life on the Farm” day for Brunswick County third graders for 40 years, helped cinch the Farmer of the Year honor.
“I believe that if you don’t give back, you’re just taking up space,” says Mary. “Wilbur jokes that he left the volunteering up to me, but truth is, for 54 years we’ve worked together to make our farm and our family what it is.”
The Earps have two sons, Jeff and Dennis. Dennis works for Duke Power, and Jeff has taken the reins of Funston Farms. Funston consists of a little more than 1,000 acres the family owns in Winnabow and another 2,800 acres they own and lease in Columbus County. Here in Winnabow they have hogs and cattle (and a horse that belongs to a granddaughter); in Columbus, it’s all cropland. Between the two sites, they have close to 20 employees, 250 mother cows (more when they calve) and capacity for 2,900 hogs (their numbers are low currently because of a disease that’s decimating piglet populations).
Funston Farms grew in fits and starts before it became what it is today. Earp’s father was a sustenance farmer (as was his grandfather) and raised a small tobacco crop for several years. Back then the crops were small, but so was the farm. After a failed stint working with his father, Earp left, but he soon came back into the struggling family business and turned it around. Then he began buying land 30 or 40 acres at a time as finances and opportunity allowed.
“We just sort of put it together, growing where we could, expanding, bringing in new crops and livestock,” he says. “Like so many other farmers, we built it as best we knew how.”
The growth continues, and a new hog barn is nearing completion. When it’s finished, it will allow the Earps to push their number of hogs up to around 4,000. The whole operation is much bigger than what Earp’s grandfather would have envisioned.
“My grandfather, I admired that old guy,” says Earp. “He instilled in me a work ethic, appreciation for nature and curiosity that made me into the man I am now.”
Earp is a man who deserves a rest. He served in the Army’s 82nd Airborne Division during the Korean War, worked his family farm from the depths of the Great Depression through to recent profitability, turned out two fine sons, handed the farm to one who’s “amazing me in the way he continues to find new growth and revenue streams,” and for 40 years has contended with third-graders running through his fields and barns as they learn what it takes to work a farm.
All of this adds up to a busy and accomplished life, one that is deserving of recognition. The Brunswick County Commissioners recently passed a resolution recognizing his achievements and his title of North Carolina Farmer of the Year. The resolution read, in part:
“It is no surprise that Brunswick County should recognize this diversified farmer, Wilbur Earp, for his many contributions to the community and to the practice of farming. This quiet but thoughtful man has watched and guided the succession of years to be in an honored place, so noted when the communities of his life listen to his advice, tempered by wisdom of years and nature.”
Earp was moved by the gesture, but he took it in stride, with that typical salt-of-the-earth humility you expect from a man like him.
“I didn’t do any of this by myself,” Earp says. “Mary deserves her share of the credit, as do my dad and grandfather and sons and all the people who’ve helped me over the years. Without them, I’d just be another farmer.”