Gary Bullen: Reflection and Advice Ahead of Retirement

2 men smiling

Gary, right, with colleague Ed Kick on a department field trip.

Stephen “Gary” Bullen has announced his retirement beginning on September 1st, 2021. Bullen started working in business development and marketing 25 years ago and since then has led numerous projects in evaluating new businesses ideas. He has assisted numerous farmers evaluate new enterprises and develop market plans. He has extensive international experience in business development and marketing projects in Eastern Europe and over Africa.

Gary is also the director of the NC Farm School program which is offered throughout North Carolina. The program provides the framework and resources necessary for beginning and transiting farmers to make sound business decisions needed to start a new farm business. Over 346 students have successfully completed the program since 2014. Forty-six farms have been started as result of the program. He has M.S. degrees from the University of Tennessee in Extension Education and Agricultural Economics. Gary grew up on a tobacco and vegetable farm near Berea Kentucky where he provided free family labor.

We asked Gary a few questions ahead of of his retirement.

What brought you to NC State 22 years ago?

I had always wanted to live in NC. Thought it was a beautiful state with lots of outdoor opportunities. NC State ARE was a well-respected department across the country. While working in IL someone send me a NC State job announcement asking if I want to move back South. I applied the next day. It was an easy decision to move to NC.

Is there a particular moment that stands out as a career highlight?

I can think about several moments, but a couple stand out. I worked for the Cooperative Extension Service in three states because it gave me the opportunity to help people. The times I could see tangible result of helping people stand out for me. In Illinois one of my responsibilities was providing financial counseling for farmers. Sometimes it involved evaluating adding new enterprise or bring in one of the children to the farming operation. Other times it involved more difficult decisions on how to keep the farm. One of my highlights was working with an older farmer who had major health event leaving him with huge medical bills. Because of these huge medical bills was on the verge of losing his farm. Over six months we worked with him on a financial plan to pay down his medical bills and keep his farm. I followed with him a couple years later and he was doing well.

Another highlight just happened a few months ago. Over the past 7 years have been working on a NC Farm School program where we help people interested in agriculture start a farm.  Several years ago, I became aware of the challenges many African American farmers faced in keeping their farms. After a recent graduation dinner, the grandfather of one African American student came up to after the graduation, thanking me for helping his granddaughter work on a plan to develop their farm. The grandfather told me I now know the farm will stay in my family for a long time. It is good sometimes to be reminded why I choose the work I did.

What advice do you have for small farmers who want to start a new enterprise?

Do not quit your day job until you have paid for the land and developed the infrastructure for the farm. Farming requires a large upfront investment before they start seeing any profits. Some enterprise like blueberries will take 5-8 years before you will see a profit. After you have paid for the infrastructure and land then you can consider becoming a full-time farmer.

When you are considering a new enterprise, do your research, can you find anyone who has made a profit with the new crop. If you can not find anyone growing the crop and making a profit, there may be a reason.

What is the biggest challenge facing small farmer in NC today?

If we are talking about young farmers, I would say having enough capital to start. Farming even a small farm requires a huge amount of money to start. If the farm is older, labor is the largest challenge as they grow their farm. Many of the enterprises small farmers grow have a high labor requirement usually concentrated at harvest time.

What will retirement look like for you?

I have worked on short term international project for many years mostly in Africa. I hope to take on longer term projects in Africa as soon as I can travel again. I have seen how small changes can have big impact for small land holders. In October I will teaching a virtual business class for Nigerian farm managers. I will continue working with ZOE, a self-help group working with orphans in Africa. I hope to devote more time to helping the group. I have been working with a Karen refugee group starting a farm in Wake County. They are interested developing a supplemental income by selling Asian Vegetables. I hope to take back up some of my younger year’s hobbies of backpacking and kayaking. My wife and I have a list of countries