Life Stories

Life Stories: Farmer Gary Murray left land better off than he found it

CorrespondentOctober 13, 2013 

  • Gary Eston Murray

    Born: March 9, 1945, in Alamance County.

    Family: Marries wife Wanda Overman Murray in 1967. Has one child, son Chris Murray, who has three children with his wife, Jamie.

    Education: Graduates from Southern Alamance High School Graham in 1963; earns associate degree in agriculture from NCSU in 1965.

    Military: Drafted to the U.S. Army immediately after graduating from NCSU and serves for more than two years, most of the time in Germany.

    Career: Retired in 2006 after 20 years working for the Alamance County Soil and Water Conservation District; worked earlier in the poultry industry as a field inspector for nearly 20 years. Began selling at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market in 1982.

    Dies: Aug. 18.

While his friends were happy to run around the countryside of Alamance County and shoot off BB guns, by age 12 Gary Murray preferred to grow corn corn, keep bees and nurture laying hens.

“He was sort of like a farming prodigy,” said son Chris Murray, his only child.

When Gary Murray went to N.C. State University to earn an associate’s degree in agriculture, he was already the owner of a small herd of cows, which he had bought on his own while in high school.

“He always believed your farm will pay its own way. That’s how my dad rolled. You earn it,” Chris Murray said.

He was the third generation to occupy the family-owned Sunset Farms in Snow Camp and became the bridge that spanned the transition from conventional farming methods to sustainable practices. Throughout this life he worked his land. And for 40 years also held down full-time positions in agriculture and the environment. He ultimately had only a few years of retirement during which his health allowed him to farm full time.

Murray died in mid-August at the age of 68 after a years-long battle with kidney cancer, and he was the first of two farmers from the Durham Farmers’ Market to die that week. For the market community, it was a tremendous loss, said market manager Erin Kauffman.

‘Always ... really proud’

In recent years, as his health failed, Murray typically sat at his booth, both in Durham and in Carrboro, taking it all in, sometimes with his three grandchildren.

“He always seemed really proud,” Kauffman said.

That pride stemmed from knowing all he worked for would continue in the hands of his son. Chris Murray is now the president of the Carrboro Farmers’ Market board.

“My passion and drive for it came later than his,” Chris Murray said.

After earning multiple degrees in soil science, Chris Murray realized it was more fulfilling to do the work rather than study ways to improve upon it. By then, the farm had come a long way under his father’s care, focusing on produce rather than commodities such as grain. Chris Murray could see it was something special.

Though Murray never pressured his son to take over Sunset Farms and encouraged his education, it was a big deal when Chris Murray told his father in 2008 he’d like to “come home.”

Together, they made the farm even more sustainable.

“He had opened the door to that kind of concept with some of the practices he had started in the early 2000s,” Chris Murray said.

Alex Hitt of Peregrine Farm sold in a booth at the Carrboro Farmers’ Market next to Murray for 28 years and said he was always an ideal neighbor: “agreeable, cooperative, fun and respectful.”

Pioneer in sustainability

In many ways Sunset Farms represented the the changing face of North Carolina agriculture during the past 30 years, from a tobacco-dominated one to a very diverse industry, Hitt wrote in an email to the community.

“Gary slowly moved away from conventional farming techniques and pesticides to the use of cover crops, crop rotations and other more sustainable practices, never with a preaching or ‘I told you so’ attitude, but ... because he thought it was a better way,” Hitt wrote

Farmers’ markets were a joy for Murray, and as the sustainable movement gained speed, he embraced those practices – no small thing for a man who started his career as a field inspector for the big poultry industry. His evolution can be seen in his career choices, not just in his farming practices. In the mid-1980s, Murray left the poultry industry and began a 20-year career working for the Alamance County Soil and Water Conservation District.

Murray, a longtime member of Mount Pleasant United Methodist Church in Kimesville, maintained a spiritual connection to the practice of farming and felt that it was his privilege to be a steward of any part of creation, whether livestock or lima beans.

“I’ve inherited some very well-cared-for ground here, and that was a part of it,” Chris Murray said.

His son has been learning just how much his father was contributing to the farm, even during his illness. Chris Murray now has to research matters such as when to plant oat seeds, rather than ask his dad. He has a newfound respect for the man’s tractor skills.

“Gary Murray was a farmer,” Chris Murray said. “You just never had any question.”

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