After spending nearly a decade working in academia, Mary Sanders Bulan wanted to find a way to work more directly with farmers. She and her wife Kiera moved to Black Mountain, NC in 2016, and Mary was professionally familiar with RAFI through her work in adjacent agricultural fields. When Mary saw that RAFI was hiring for a leadership position in the Farmers of Color Network, she viewed it as an opportunity to connect her skills and experience with a farmer population she cared about deeply. In November 2022, Mary joined the RAFI staff as Senior Program Manager for FOCN and was subsequently named Farmer Services Director. She takes a leadership role in delivering RAFI’s farmer-centered programming and direct services, especially within the Farmers of Color Network.
Mary’s parents met in Malaysia, her mother’s home country, when her father served in the Peace Corps in the 1970s. Mary was born in Honolulu, HI, where her father worked as a doctor in the U.S. Army. Most of her childhood memories center on Conway, SC in the swampy Lowcountry where she and her two sisters, Diane and Ranee, grew up.
“My childhood in South Carolina was a pretty unremarkable one. I played sports, and music, enjoyed nature, went to church, and excelled in academics. I played a lot of guitar alone in my room as a teenager. As I got older, we would explore the swamps and go canoeing and bird watching. I was always a nerd and into nature, and some things haven’t changed,” she says.
After high school, Mary went to live with her Malaysian relatives where she learned to farm rice by hand, harvest wild foods from the jungle, and maintain a garden. It was during this time that she truly fell for agriculture and after graduating college she traveled with a friend through the Worldwide Opportunities on Organic Farms (WWOOF) network, learning organic methods on a variety of farms. “These farmers had electricity, tractors, and computers. It felt more accessible than the hard manual labor of village life but still natural, healthy, invigorating, and rewarding,” she remembers.
It is no surprise then that after WWOOFing settled down, Mary decided to dive headfirst into her own farming venture. She started “Scratch Farm” at an incubator run by Southside Community Land Trust and sold to restaurants, farmers markets, and CSA customers in Rhode Island. However, after two years of working the farm, a sudden injury left her unable to work. With no health insurance and no unemployment check to keep her afloat, she found herself driven back to academia to find a new path for herself. Mary began studying agronomy at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, where she did research on traditional buckwheat seed systems and crop genetics in Southwest China, as well as buckwheat cover crops in Midwestern no-till vegetable production. By 2014, Mary had earned her Ph.D. and was intent on applying her new knowledge toward a more sustainable and just food system.
“Working as a farmer allows you to express lots of different aspects of yourself: physically, mentally, and spiritually. Then you get to eat the results and feed people. Farming has been practiced in many, many different ways all over the world. And it turns out, the way we farm matters. So I got really obsessed with this dynamic problem of how to meet human needs and well-being while honoring the whole ecological community. I want to use my skills to help other people make their way as farmers, especially those for whom the path is not so easy or uncomplicated.”
Academia represented a place to Mary where she could never stop learning and stay engaged with ideas that excited her, so it seemed like a natural next step in her professional development. But she found the culture of higher education was not an ideal fit for her. While she went on to become an accomplished academic and teacher, she found herself yearning for a more practical and applied setting. With RAFI, she has found an inspiring population of farmers to continue her work in a very direct way.
But old habits die hard, and while Mary works with RAFI to build a better future for farmers, she never stopped farming herself. She and her partner run a small herb, flower, and vegetable farm in Western North Carolina called Little Farm Black Mountain. “We live in a place now where almost anything grows. I feel sometimes like I’m living in Eden. I’ve been a grower for a long time and spent years in cold climates, it’s great to be back in the Southeast and have such a productive growing environment,” she explains.
When Mary isn’t helping other farmers or farming herself, she enjoys playing music, cooking, sitting around the campfire with loved ones, and playing with her and Kiera’s children, ages 7 and 9 “at least as much as they are willing to include me.”