Mark Blevins started his journey at NC State as an undergraduate student in the College of Engineering, but it wasn’t the right fit. “I got to thinking that I didn’t want to sit in front of a computer screen for the rest of my life – I wanted to be outside and help people”, says Blevins. He never looked back. Blevins graduated with undergraduate, Master’s, and EdD degrees in Agricultural and Extension Education with a focus on horticulture in 2003, 2005, and 2019, respectively, and now works for NC A&T Cooperative Extension as assistant extension administrator. In this role, he is responsible for Agriculture and Natural Resource programs, and helps coordinate research and educational initiatives to transfer university research to extension offices and North Carolinians from the mountains to the coast, with a special focus on serving small and minority farmers.
“I thought back to the times that my parents would call the local extension office to figure out why our watermelons weren’t getting larger than a softball, or how to get stains out of my clothes, and even 4-H camp opportunities. Those people always took the time to listen to my parents and to share University resources with my family. That’s why I switched majors to become an extension agent.”
For Blevins, his work at NC A&T – and all of the extension work – is about making an impact. “Farmers deserve the best information to make sound decisions in their operations”, says Blevins, and “extension is able to curate the resources of research institutions across the country so that local growers can make decisions based on science and their unique situation.” He knows that helping farmers do their best work makes an impact not just on those individual farms, but on agriculture in the state and country as a whole.
Blevins also appreciates how his work allows him to be part of the legacy of NC State and NC A&T State University’s land grant missions: research, teaching, and extension. He says that in order to be a good steward of the funds invested in North Carolina’s farms, families, and youth, extension must work hard to be an effective “conduit” of information from campus to counties and clients. “That conduit”, he says, “can’t be in one direction from an ivory tower, but has to flow both ways so that researchers and academicians learn from the communities we serve in order for new research to be addressing upcoming needs and issues, not yesterday’s news.”
Attending NC State gave Blevins the knowledge he needed for his career, but it also gave him the confidence he needed to pursue it. “The fear of giving terrible advice was rather unfounded, I just didn’t know it at the time”, notes Blevins. “So the coursework Master’s Degree was the right fit for me; I could focus on plant pathology, propagation, and other topics that would help me identify problems in a nursery and help farmers think through the best solutions for their situation.” With a strong grounding in technical knowledge, Blevins felt ready to launch his career in county-level extension work, where he quickly found that listening was the key to making a difference. He says that many of the farmers he worked with, both those with years of experience and those just starting out, were looking for a listening ear as much as they were specific advice. “Sometimes growers just need someone like you or me to help think through problems, issues, and opportunities on their farms”, notes Blevins. “The way I was able to add value to their operations was by connecting them with resources and helping them get perspective on how they’re doing and the progress they’ve made.”
While working in county-level extension, Blevins took advantage of tuition support available to NC Cooperative Extension personnel to pursue his doctorate. “It wasn’t easy working and writing and researching while growing a family, advancing a career, and dealing with all that life throws at you, but it was worth the effort” he says. Blevins’ doctoral research focused on local elected officials and their perceptions of Cooperative Extension, research which has inspired similar projects in other states, and the results of which have made a difference in the ways some counties and extension offices approach decision-makers. As a student, an Agricultural Leadership Development Program participant, and an extension professional, Blevins was grateful for the support of faculty, including Jay Jayaratne, Marshall Stewart, Katherine McKee, Blake Brown, and Joy Morgan. “The instructors all had practical experience and knowledge to share, and everyone on my academic committees were committed to my success”, says Blevins.
Throughout his career, Blevins has had no shortage of opportunities to see the unique value of Cooperative Extension play out in real life, and he encourages students and others to consider a career in extension. “These are wonderful jobs that make a difference in the lives of farmers, families and young people. There’s flexibility to do impactful work, and resources at the University and local level to train and equip us and our clients across the state. It’s been amazing to see the positive changes that people I’ve worked with have made on their farms and in their communities.”
Looking ahead, Blevins is excited to see what the future holds for North Carolina food and agriculture. “We wouldn’t plant seeds without hope for the future, and we surely wouldn’t be planting trees. My goal, as it has been for years, is to make the biggest difference I can in extension to help North Carolinians feed and change the world.