I was born and raised on my family’s Germans-Catholic homestead in Canute, OK. I am the 5th generation to be raised there.
We maintain a working farm and our original barn is still used in daily operations. We are proud to raise registered Hereford Cattle, we market commercial black baldies and also sell registered Hereford bulls. We grow alfalfa and winter wheat when the weather cooperates. In addition to cattle we always had chickens, guineas, and horses growing up. We also raised sheep and pigs for a short time.
My Mother managed the day to day details on the farm, and my Father worked as a rural extension economist before opening businesses in insurance, real estate, and mineral resources brokering.
My childhood was idyllic. We were raised outside, building forts near the creek, and bringing cows in on horseback, and with a great awe and appreciation for nature and country.
Church, piano, 4-H and FFA were big a influence on my life growing up.
There were 28 kids in my graduating class at Canute Public Schools, and at least 15 of us had been together since kindergarten.
I was just a small town farm kid moving to the “big city” of Stillwater, OK when I enrolled at Oklahoma State University.
I selected a major of Agriculture Economics, but I was challenged to stay focused because I had deep interests in computer science, engineering, and civic activity.
Being enrolled at the university 3 hours away from the farm, the world seemed so big!
Exploring the world
After graduating with a B.S. in Agriculture Economics, I enrolled in a Masters program which took me to Puebla, Mexico. While in Mexico, Peace Corps approved my application and offered to post me in Eastern Europe.
3 weeks after returning from Mexico I found myself packing away my life into storage, and boarding a plane to the Republic of Moldova as a Agriculture and Rural Business Volunteer.
27 months in the Peace Corps flew by despite the challenges.
While I desperately hoped to focus on Agribusiness projects, most of my time was consumed by improving my ability to communicate, navigating cultural differences, maintaining physical and moral health while living in humble conditions in the poorest country in Europe.
Peace Corps was a rewarding experience that helped me break away from my preconceived vision of the world, it also forced me to question every aspect of the new culture along with aspects of my own culture.
I met a guy….. I maybe could just stop here :).
I met Yuri, a local businessman while finishing my first year of service, I knew on our first date (like a strike of lightning) that he was my guy.
Having such strong convictions was important because this decision would turn my life (as I had been preparing to live it) upside down.
The Real World
We got married in 2009 after the 2008 global financial crisis. With world trade down, and fewer containers being shipped into the port, my husband parked most of his fleet from his transport company in Odessa Ukraine. With transport and trade taking a big hit, we fell back on a controlling share in a decrepit Soviet Collective farm. We already had some good friends established in the industry and so we started over again.
Memorably, while we were reorganizing the farm, I withdrew my Peace Corps readjustment allowance from the bank, and rode a packed public bus with over $3,000 cash in my backpack to the regional diesel office to pay for fuel to put in the winter wheat. My allowance, which had accumulated over two years in Peace Corps, evaporated in a matter of days, and then we needed more.
The excitement of starting a new business quickly faded to reality realizing that we needed cash flow to live and to bankroll operations. Even in Moldova, farming is expensive and farm credit for inputs and equipment is hard to come by. Most businesses need a couple of years before breaking even, and you need to find money to live on in the mean time. There are no shortcuts.
Exploring A life in both countries
Yuri came along with me to Oklahoma during the winter. He took English classes while I was pursuing my masters degree in International Economics and Finance. We were able to create some memories that we will laugh at later.
Living in married student housing, there were two families from India (over 9 people) living in the apartment next door. While our diet consisted of beans and beef that my Mom sent us, our neighbors prepared meals that my husband swore were 90% spices to 10% rice. Adapting to life in the US while living along multiple other cultures in foreign student housing was challenging at the time, and today a little humorous.
As spring started to break, Yuri needed to get back to the farm. During reorganization we had acquired the right to farm a portion of the land and had also taken a portion of the bad farm debt owed to unofficial lending sources. He also had to ensure we correctly planted corn and sunflowers.
Yuri was still sending trucks and drivers on transport orders, and I was working part time at the University trying to finish my degree. I had taken student loans to finish school and we were both looking for investment capital to keep the farm afloat. Sometimes it was hard to see the silver lining.
While I finished my masters degree, Yuri would come to the US during the winter, and I would travel to Moldova during the summer. Yuri stayed very focused on improving crop yields with the rusty equipment we had inherited and despite our poor crop genetics at the time.
We finally got established enough to buy our first tractor, a proud moment for any farming operation.
Since starting our farming business in 2009 we have over tripled the area that we farm and we now have over 20 dedicated staff on our team from three different villages.
After graduating from OSU, I flew to Moldova without a return ticket. I hoped to use my degree Agriculture Economics and now my Masters in International Finance to support the farm operation but also to improve efficiencies as we transitioned the farm system from collective soviet to commercial agriculture.
After deciding that we would discontinue tobacco production, we were concerned about the fate of the local women who had worked for us on that operation. I proposed using our tobacco facilities to start producing horticulture crops, I planned to grow specialty varieties of tomatoes and greens using natural methods following USDA organic guidelines.
Our first year was stressful but exciting, and our second year we expanded from customer subscriptions and into restaurant supply. Our products were in such high demand that often we were not able to fulfill all the orders we received. I knew that we would need to make a significant investment in order to expand.
After our first year with EcoValley, amidst plans for expanding our operations, we discovered that we would become parents.
This was probably the most scary step in life so far.
Living in Moldova and starting a businesses amidst poverty and corruption is one thing, but having a baby here was quite another.
I did what any newly expecting future mother does, I started to research and develop a support network.
I had a couple of American friends living in Moldova who already had children and hearing their experiences was comforting.
Because the farm is in a rural area we rented an apartment an hour and a half away in the capital city of Chisinau.
Evelina was born, and I enjoyed some time to stay at home with her to update our organic produce on the website, and then two weeks later we made our first produce deliveries to clients in Chisinau.
Without grandparents or family near, soon it was evident, that I would need someone to watch the baby for a hour here or there while I ran to the grocery story or met with clients, after all Yuri was deep in planting season and was already 1.5 hrs away. Also, without the creature comforts a clothes dryer or microwave or dishwasher, I needed some help.
We found a wonderful woman to help us and since she and her daughter have become part of our family. Raising a baby is an entirely new experience in cultural navigation. I was alarmed the first time I walked in to our babysitter getting ready to give my daughter a bath in a tub full of grass! These later turned out to be chamomile and other beneficial herbal tea plants, and the water had been prepared with the herbs and then strained leaving the infusion for the bath. As I said, parenthood makes you analyze the cultural differences to a deeper level.
At the end of our second production year with EcoValley, I was approached by a US Engineering company. This firm was contracted to design a large irrigation system in Moldova under a project financed by the US government. They needed someone with a background in Agriculture Economics who understood the local farming context. I agreed to join the team under the condition that I could to fulfill my EcoValley obligations until the end of the production season.
As a consultant I dug into the world of professional engineering design and found the tools that they were using (drafting, mapping, precipitation and transpiration tools)were the ones I had needed on the farm when we were planning our irrigation system, mapping our land leases, and calculating construction budgets for capital projects on the farm. I was hooked and knew that this experience and learning how to use these tools would improve my ability to create value for our operation after this assignment was over.
I loved the fast pace and the ability to use my degree more directly.
With the approval of our team’s conceptual system designs, we moved into preparing detailed designs and construction budgeting for a $12 million project. My consulting assignment as the Local logistical director for the contract was extended. I needed to make some tough decisions about the future of EcoValley. Other than struggling to understand the law on production and sales of vegetables in a corrupt environment, the next biggest obstacle was trying to reform established mindsets of my production team. In EcoValley our clients expected quality over quantity, a new concept to Soviet era farm teams who would throw the bad apples in the bottom of the crate with the nice ones on top before shipping to Moscow. I realized that by taking a break from production, I could focus on raising investment capital while also addressing legislative reform and building a tighter system on managing production and quality control.
With an infant, the need to be closer to running water and clean conditions was much greater and I decided that my work as a consultant might provide me with the capital and experience to move EcoValley to a new location after a couple of years as well as the ability to stay closer to home.
With a heavy heart, I put EcoValley on hold for a year, and then two, and then indefinitely.
I had already seen how hard it was to maintain cash flow of agriculture operations throughout the winter months, so I planned continue consulting after re-launching EcoValley to ensure we had enough cash in the spring to meet payroll.
While I was looking for a new location to move our greenhouses, I was also in the process of renting an office and establishing myself as an agricultural consultant. One of my engineering colleagues approached me and was interested to join. Eventually the entire engineering company partnered with me to form a new company, KB-Walkoma LLC.
I used my savings to invest in the new partnership, but sweat equity to get things started day to day. We established the US company and also a Moldovan branch.
Despite my desire to dive directly into client projects analyzing enterprise budgets, farm plans, and farm diversification, I now found myself responsible to navigate setting up a new business under opaque laws and procedures in Moldova.
For the most part when it comes to business, the US makes the system straight forward, in Moldova however, setting up a business was a new level of complicated.
As a partner in a new company, while working on a sweat equity basis, I used more of my savings to start renovating the new location for “EcoValley.” I had found this new location after a long grueling search and the property that matched my criteria, came along with an unusual structure. I decided to rehabilitate the barrel on stilts, and thus my “Bungalow project” began.
Business associations for legislative reform
While setting up the company, we became members of the American Chamber of Commerce in Moldova. AMCHAM was such a strong force in Moldova working behind the scenes to modify pieces of the law that inhibited business but also working to bring government agencies and businesses together on a professional and social level. We were pleased to have such a professional association established in Moldova.
It was also my goal to continue reforming the legislation on Organic and specialty vegetable production while focusing on KB-Walkoma, and I realized that I could use the AMCHAM model to establish the first association for Organic Farmers in Moldova. MOVCA (Moldovan Organic Value Chain Alliance) was established in 2015, and I remain its honorary President of the Board of Directors.
After establishing MOVCA, a group of fellow former Peace Corps volunteers and local Entrepreneurs came together to establish a new association for small businesses who were investing in Moldova on their own without teams of accountants and lawyers (typical of AMCHAM members Coca-Cola, McDonalds, etc). By this point I was a jr.expert in writing organization statues in Romanian language, and with support from a generous private American businessman along with our initial membership fees, the Foreign Small Enterprise Alliance (FSEA) was born.
These associations work collaboratively with each other on a number of issues and have been responsible for a phenomenal amount of changes to the business environment in Moldova.
In 2017, my original partner and licensed Engineer Mike, and I saw the opportunity to provide full scale services to large agriculture projects rather than focus solely on irrigation engineering. We purchased the company shares from the engineering company in Utah and established our main office in Farmington, NM. With established clients and a wide variety of services offered, our company is an avenue to use our experiences to provide flexibility to rural organizations and agriculture entities to create more rural jobs, and drive economic development. We are reigstered with the US Small Business Administration as a WOSB.
Overseas Ag Girl
Because of my collection of unique experiences, and the exciting projects that I always have popping up, I wanted to develop a platform to discuss these topics with my network back in the US.
Living abroad has its perks, but it also gets lonely speaking a foreign language all day and missing out on professional networking opportunities in the US.
I hope that by publishing this blog, I can connect with more people:
Who love the American Midwest/Southwest, notably Oklahoma
Who are interested in Eastern Europe, notably Moldova
Who are interested in Agriculture
I feel like all three of these topic areas are overlooked and underrepresented.
I am excited to capture and share the daily adventures we have living overseas.
I get so many questions regarding how I have adapted to this new life abroad, an generally what our long term plans will be.
I wish I could answer these questions with a simple answer, however it’s not so simple, and as is everything in life, my story is a work in progress.