New state director shares vision for N.C. Extension

First and always, Dr. Richard Bonanno considers himself a farmer. But farming is just one of the many routes he’s taken in a winding journey that led him to his new office in NC State University’s Patterson Hall.

In early February, Bonanno became state director for the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service and associate dean of the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. Extension is an educational partnership of NC State and North Carolina A&T State universities, county governments and the U.S. Department of Agriculture, addressing the areas of agriculture, food and nutrition and youth development.

Before assuming his new position at Extension’s helm, Bonanno had been an Extension specialist at NC State for six years in the 1980s, then took on managing his family’s vegetable and flower farm near Boston. While farming, Bonanno also served as a part-time Extension specialist for the University of Massachusetts, volunteer president of the Massachusetts Farm Bureau Federation and board member for the American Farm Bureau Federation.

Amid a busy schedule of meetings taking him across North Carolina, Bonanno sat down to share information about himself and his views about Extension’s past, present and future.

You were a weed specialist with North Carolina Cooperative Extension in the 1980s, then you left to return home to Massachusetts. What took you away?

We really enjoyed being here for a little over six years. I started January 1983, then I got tenure on July 1, 1988. On that same day, my father’s oldest brother, who managed the family farm up in Massachusetts, passed away. He was never married, so I ended up with his share of the business. I had to make a decision about whether the farm was going to continue. At that point it had been in our family for about 78 years … so I made the decision to move back there.

What led you back to North Carolina? What more were you wanting in your career?

I did a lot of things when I was up in Massachusetts, but one of the things that I always wanted to do was to get into university administration, and this job became open. It was a place I had worked at and knew and liked. One of my daughters had gotten a degree in agriculture from the University of Massachusetts, and so there was somebody at the farm, a next generation coming along that could take over some of the responsibilities. And so I felt like I would give it a shot.

You’ve been a farmer for quite some time. Are you leaving that?

I made a comment at a meeting last week that my hands will definitely be a little prettier than they have been in the past. But I consider myself always to be a farmer — whether I’m up on that farm in Massachusetts or I’m here, I am a farmer at heart. I grew up on that farm … and when this job finishes and I retire, I will probably continue to farm because it’s one of those things you never get out of your system — something you always love.

How do you think your experiences have prepared you for the position of Extension director?

To me, it’s an advantage that I am this hybrid of so many different pieces and that I have had experiences in so many different places. I think it helps me connect with all the different parts, the staff, the partners of Extension, the public policy makers — whether it’s at the county, federal or state level — and the agricultural community. Even though my hands are better-looking than they have been, having that connection and knowing what farmers face is also something that is helpful when trying to work with the agricultural community.

What does Extension mean to you today?

I think Extension has a way of doing business that for most people really hasn’t changed in the 100 years that Extension’s been around. Technology has certainly changed and how we interact with our customers has changed, but the basic premise of Extension is the same: We are here to help solve problems and create opportunities. Whether it be with the public through food and nutrition programs, with youth through 4-H or with farmers, our role is to identify needs, develop programs to address them — sometimes with existing information, sometimes with new research — and then get research-based information to the user’s community.

What is the biggest challenge facing Extension?

There are a couple of things: One is just dollars and cents. It’s difficult to continue to operate year after year with either stagnant budgets or budgets that go slowly backward. To provide the same services or more services, everybody knows that the price of everything goes up incrementally over time, and even if the budget is stagnant you are going backwards because everything is more expensive.

I think another challenge that’s there that we can use to our advantage is that the public is certainly more engaged with the food supply than they might have been 10 or 20 years ago. Because of the public’s inquisitiveness about where their food comes from, it really helps us with our programming for youth and nutrition programs.

It also helps us educate our non-farming customers about what agriculture is and how it’s changed over the years to go from subsistence farming to the point where today’s farmer can now feed 155 people. … I tell everybody that when the Constitution was signed, 95 percent of the people were farmers, mainly producing food for themselves and very little beyond that. By 1920, it was still 40 percent. And now we are dealing with numbers that are hovering around 1.8 percent. So the only way that the public can do all the things that people want to do other than farm is to have farmers who are able to grow much more than their own families consume.

How does the Extension Service rise to meet the challenges?

Finding ways to better manage existing resources is something we will have to continue to do.

I also believe that having the support of your customers is really important. Extension relies on government dollars, and so it’s important for our customers to be able to tell their legislators and their decision makers that these services are crucial and need to be funded adequately.

We also have to continue to look for other funding sources, such as grant money and having benefactors in the private sector who are willing to fund programs.

There’s nothing mandated about what we do. We are here because we provide great customer service. Agriculture, as an example, is almost predominantly small businesses. We think about big farms sometimes, but if you want to go look at the Census of Agriculture — and this is true all around the country — somewhere in the vicinity of 70 percent of farmers in North Carolina gross $50,000 or less. It’s a huge percentage of farmers and not a huge number in terms of income. And these small businesses do not have the resources to be able to go out and pay for the technology that they need, the expertise that they need, to keep their businesses growing. If it weren’t for Cooperative Extension, they would not get those services.

Through our food and nutrition programs, we have a role in public health — in trying to work with the public in terms of helping them to make wise choices that not only impact their general health, but also critical specific pieces like obesity and the onset of diabetes and so forth. Cooperative Extension is a great, unbiased, publicly funded way of trying to improve the health of the public.

We are also recognized for developing youth into decision makers and leaders and members of society. The more time we spend with our youth, the better adults and productive citizens they will be. … 4-H is not just about farm kids and technology transfer, it’s STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics education) and more.

What are some of the things you’d like to address as we move forward?

A lot of the strategic plan that the North Carolina Cooperative Extension Service has been focused on is how we staff the counties and what’s the best way, from both the programmatic standpoint and a budget standpoint, to provide the most information we can. So partly what I want to do is sort of a completion of that strategic plan, which ends this coming July 1. … I want feedback. How has it worked? What are the good things? What are the bad things? What do we still need to work on?

Additionally, we need to look beyond just the county staffing and look at all the other connections — whether it’s how we interact with our partners or how the campus Extension specialists and associates interact as the front-line information providers to the county Extension agents. How are we dealing with specialists? What kind of help or services can we provide to specialists to allow them to do a better job so that the information flow is as good as we always expect it to be?

What’s the most important thing the Extension family both employees and clients should know about you?

I plan to do everything I can to move this organization forward, to provide great customer service, to be transparent, and to welcome criticism and comments from all our employees, farmers and other clients.