he 48-year veteran of Cooperative Extension, who has worked his entire career in Sampson County, says while the computer may be useful for some, he has never used one. As a concession to the previous district director, he kept one on his desk for years, unplugged.
“Now, computers are a valuable tool, but I’m in the wrong generation. I can’t handle it,” he said. “I do think computers have a real place and have made a lot of things easier, but at the same time they’ve made some things very difficult.”
Upton does return email with the help of administrative secretary Frankie Waters, but for him, the most valuable tools of the job are the automobile and telephone. “People still want to look you eye to eye in a county where agriculture is basically everything,” he said.
Upton started work in Sampson County in 1956, after earning a bachelor’s degree in animal science in N.C. State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. “When I came to work for Extension, everyone started out in 4-H at least two years, so I did my tour of duty in 4-H to start with,” he said.
After completing some military time, he returned to Sampson County as a swine agent. When the county later hired a second livestock agent – the first county to do so – Upton moved on to cattle work. In 1988, he became Sampson’s Extension director.
A native of Randolph County, Upton says he planned to stay in Sampson County only a few years initially. His grandparents farmed, and his father ran the country store. He recalls that he hated being stuck working in the store, preferring to be outside.
“I always wanted a farm, but didn’t figure I had enough money, so this was the nearest thing to that I could get – working for Extension,” he said.
Upton says he remained in Sampson County for his entire career largely because of the county’s progressive attitude toward agriculture.
“Sampson County was at a point where they were already ahead of a lot of rural counties. They had tobacco and cotton, and they were already thinking livestock fairly heavily,” he said.
Today, Sampson County ranks second in the state in the number of hogs raised – more than 2 million last year. Environmental regulations brought by the industry’s rapid growth have been one of the challenges Upton has seen during his nearly half-century of Extension work.
Helping producers understand and keep up with regulations has taken more agents’ time than Upton ever dreamed. Sampson County swine agent Dan Bailey provides training and one-on-one assistance for county hog producers. The county Extension center also offers a mail-in records program for hog producers and recently completed a sludge survey of more than 100 hog lagoons.
Concern for the health of Sampson County’s swine industry has sometimes brought Upton into conflict with those in the College charged with helping resolve some of the industry’s challenges, particularly odor, nutrient and water-quality issues.
“We were down here, and the swine industry was growing by leaps and bounds,” Upton said. “All of a sudden, they realize just how big it’s gotten, and now all this stuff’s wrong. That’s been at least 15 to 20 years ago, and we still don’t see the problems.
“I have a reputation, I reckon, for not keeping my mouth shut. One of the good things about Extension is there’s room for more than one view.”
Upton speaks with pride about several local achievements that Extension has played a role in during his tenure. One is the creation about five years ago of Sampson Friends of Agriculture, a group of agribusiness and business leaders.
The group, which now has members from surrounding counties, was organized to tell agriculture’s story and has gone on to influence state legislation “Its influence and its impact have far exceeded anything we ever thought,” Upton said.
The county’s cattle marketing program, started in 1961, is also a success story. Upton says the market was started, “because we didn’t have a market, and if livestock was going to grow, we had to have one.”
In 1964, Sampson County built its first livestock facility for marketing and 4-H shows with donated funds and volunteer labor. A second facility was completed in 1995, after the county outgrew the original facility. That facility, built for $1.2 million with a state grant, is recognized as one of most modern livestock facilities on the East Coast. Sampson County Commissioners named the Clinton facility, appropriately, the George P. Upton Jr. Sales Arena.
Extension was also involved in the acquisition of the Sampson County Agri-Exposition Center, originally purchased to house the county’s Pork Expo, which drew 6,000 to 7,000 people to town one day each fall. Extension asked the county commissioners to purchase an abandoned bowling alley as a meeting space, but the request was initially turned down. The request was later granted, and the expo was renovated and expanded with the help of volunteer labor.
Retirement? Upton won’t say when, but he acknowledges he’ll “have to hang it up before too much longer.” He has fulfilled his dream of owning a farm, having purchased a local cattle operation he plans to work in his retirement.
Upton’s wife, Mary, calls him a workaholic, but he says he has always enjoyed his work. A successful career in Extension cannot be achieved in 40-hour weeks, he says.
“Extension has been a great place for me. I’m thankful every day they let me come to Sampson County and work,” he said. “If I had been in another county somewhere, I probably would have retired long somewhere, I probably would have retired long ago. But people here still believe in Extension and still use Extension.”