Dr. S. Gary Bullen: “Short Term International Opportunities”

Dr. Bullen leading a business seminar in Ghana outdoors

WRITTEN BY Jennifer Terlouw, jlterlou@ncsu.edu

As part of a series of seminars hosted by CALS SAIGE, Dr. S. Gary Bullen presented “’Short Term International Opportunities’ NC State Agricultural and Resource Economics” to CALS students on Friday, Sept. 13th. Dr. Bullen is the director of the NC Farm School program and has worked in business development and marketing for over 25 years and participated in many international agribusiness projects which were the basis for the presentation.

Dr. Bullen has visited Moldova on three separate occasions and various countries in Africa including Ethiopia, Southern Sudan, Zimbabwe and Kenya nine times to assist local farmers in developing business and marketing strategies. Working internationally has not been without challenges, according to Dr. Bullen, and he offered important advice for seeking secure opportunities. There are many opportunities available in countries where English is widely spoken, should language be a barrier, and it is important to be aware of the social and political conditions of the countries you hope to find work with. Trying to form relationships and gain meaningful understanding of international communities is difficult when those communities are embroiled in times of conflict, especially because of the effects armed conflicts can have on local land owners and agriculture.

A Kenyan farmer framed by the verdant scenery of growing crops

Dr. Bullen reported more socially-oriented challenges while living as a guest in an unfamiliar community as well, rooted in differing understandings of gender roles and how that can play a part in agricultural work. A respect for local cultural norms is imperative while seeking to assist in agricultural business development, but in many villages that Dr. Bullen visited, he found that women disproportionately worked in the fields while men oversaw business and marketing practices. In these villages, it was often the case that he would not be able to directly speak to the female laborers who worked in the fields and he would have to seek the appropriate channels for communication, with respect to village organization of authority. While this organization didn’t necessarily agree with Dr. Bullen’s personal values, it was important to work together and earn the community’s trust, which is essential to affecting lasting change in everyday business practices.

Of course, Dr. Bullen also faced challenges in production and recommended ways to avoid roadblocks in moving towards business growth in a community. While there are opportunities to work with communities who focus mainly on subsistence farming, Dr. Bullen said that business growth is easier to kickstart in communities who are ready to move past subsistence farming or have groups already in place to help them move past subsistence farming. He also reported issues with seeding, low production rates, problems managing crop diseases, and soil fertility. Some issues saw improvement while others did not and Dr. Bullen encouraged using the resources available to farmers to improve, without reaching too far ahead of the possible. Rather than turning to cash crops to bring better income to a village, for example, it’s better to find ways for a subsistence farming community to improve their own production. In improving production of sustainable crops such as ground nuts, farming communities can both gain income and feed themselves.

Field laborers in Moldova bagging onions for transport and sale.

Overall, it is important when working abroad and with smaller agricultural communities to, in the succinct words of Dr. Bullen, “Listen and learn.” Local farmers have an understanding of their own business and of their regional and national communities that can provide endless insight to visitors, especially if the visitor’s aim is to help improve farming practices and grow local agribusiness. This growth is not possible without a deep and involved understanding of the unique shape business planning will have to take to accommodate the needs and concerns of specific farmers and their communities. 

Monthly international seminars are hosted by CALS SAIGE, the graduate student association for interdisciplinary and global engagement.  The next seminar will feature Dr. Jean Ristaino, William Neal Reynolds Distinguished Professor in the Department of Entomology and Plant Pathology, which will be held on October 18 at 1:00pm in 2405 Williams Hall.  All CALS SAIGE international seminars are open to the public. 

All photos taken and shared by Dr. S. Gary Bullen