I ask for clarification.
“Different farms, or different crops?”
“Different farms,” Dr. Richardson repeats.
His brisk nod acknowledges his reply’s unstated significance: With such a small average farm size, Moldova’s independent growers face a hard row as they strive to rise above subsistence-level farming. And, given the nation’s dependence upon agriculture, Moldova itself faces similarly tough challenges if it is to rise out of Europe’s economic cellar.
It is June, and Richardson, a faculty member in the Agricultural and Extension Education Department and North Carolina Cooperative Extension’s accountability leader, has just returned from two weeks of annual leave as a volunteer consultant in Moldova, a country about the size of Maryland, tucked between Romania and the Ukraine, just north of the Black Sea.
Richardson’s photos, and those of retired state Extension Director Bob Wells, would serve as my introduction to Moldova and the economic and social struggles it has encountered in the decade since it gained independence from the Soviet Union.
As volunteers for the U.S. non-profit Citizens Network for Foreign Affairs, or CNFA, Richardson, Wells and I join a growing list of College of Agriculture and Life Sciences professionals and North Carolinians who are building ties with Moldova.
“The North Carolina-Moldova partnership is growing, and the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences is right there at the heart of it,” Dr. George Wilson, the College’s international programs coordinator, tells me a few days later.
To prove his point, he gets me invited to a downtown reception honoring Nicolae Cernomaz, Moldova’s foreign minister. Cernomaz is visiting Raleigh at the invitation of N.C. Secretary of State Elaine Marshall, co-chair of a committee encouraging scientific, academic, civic and business partnerships between North Carolina and Moldova.
At the reception, I see Wells, Richardson and Wilson as well as Drs. Mary Peet, George Barthalmus and Dave Beasley. Peet, an N.C. State horticultural scientist, worked in Moldova for two weeks in 2000 as a CNFA volunteer, providing production advice and helping growers set up a greenhouse cooperative.
Beasley, in the College’s Biological and Agricultural Engineering Department; Barthalmus, the College’s recently retired academic programs director; and Wilson are part of a University of North Carolina at Greensboro and North Carolina State University project to help Moldova’s agricultural university modernize its curricula and learn about university-based extension systems.
Some of them also plan to host four Moldovan scholars when they visit N.C. State this fall. By the time this magazine is printed, 12 Moldovan faculty members will have made the 5,000-mile trek to learn more about N.C. State’s teaching, research and extension programs.
Beasley, who has been working in what is now the former Soviet Union for 14 years, sees such exchanges as beneficial for people and institutions at home and abroad.
“Some of it is fairly esoteric — you get an awfully good feeling when you know you’ve done something that helps,” he says. “It is also in our best interest as U.S. citizens and North Carolinians to bring this nation out of the Third World — and if you get out beyond the capital, it is the Third World.
“They can’t bring a lot of financial or physical resources into a collaboration. However, they can bring some excellent scientific minds and some very heavy-duty problems to work on,” he explains.
The scientists he’s met have challenged him to think in new ways, and he hopes that his N.C. State students can be similarly challenged.
“We hope to get some student exchanges going, because, when it comes to the environment, it’s hard in the United States to find worst cases for students to study, but you can find them in many places over there,” he says.
For students of AEE 740: Extension in Developing Countries, Richardson’s experiences in Moldova, Russia and Mongolia provide real-world examples to complement the adult education concepts he teaches.
“What they find is that there is a common denominator for extension: While the systems and organizational structures may be different, the bottom line is educating people to help themselves improve their own lives, their communities and their societies,” Richardson says. “And there is a great deal of satisfaction that you derive when you are part of something like that.”
As Peet, Wells and Richardson had done, I’ve come to Chisinau through a CNFA-organized, U.S. Agency for International Development-funded program that provides organizations in developing countries with technical assistance. As a representative of the College’s Communication Services Department, I have the task of helping leaders of a fledgling federation of 210 savings and credit associations, or SCAs, find low-cost ways of communicating the organization’s farm financial management expertise and accomplishments to members and the public.
In my first week in Chisinau, I sit in on part of a federation workshop for two accountants, a school principal, an agronomist and a farmer. Though the room is uncomfortably hot — it’s July, it’s the 10th floor, it’s not air-conditioned, and the windows don’t open far — they lean forward attentively as Ion Perju explains, in detail, the most basic farm financial management principles.
Perju is the federation’s training coordinator. And the five people he’s talking to are the first participants in a pilot program to train local advisers, who will, in turn, pass along what they’ve learned to fellow association members.
The idea, explains Perju, is that, if borrowers can make better decisions about using credit, the SCAs won’t have as many borrowers who can’t repay their debts.
Richardson and Wells have been instrumental in developing the program: Richardson in helping create the advisers’ curriculum and streamlining what had been a complicated farm financial management record book, and Wells in developing the advisers’ job descriptions and helping screen the applicants.
One of the advisers, Zinaida Rosculet, is determined to ensure that the program they helped build makes a difference in her village, Mereseni.
“The farmers have questions that they haven’t been able to get answers to, and I want to try to do anything I can to assist the farmers in my village to become successful. This is one step,” she says. “The farmers have lost their trust and they feel cheated. They work hard, and they deserve better.”
If farmers do, indeed, feel cheated, it’s not without reason. What was once a tightly controlled agricultural system has unraveled.
During the Soviet era, Moldova’s rich black soils made it one of the USSR’s most important agricultural states, producing vegetables, fruit, wheat, sunflowers and, most notably, grapes for wine. But with independence, collective farms were dismantled, the land and other assets divided among the collective’s members.
Farmers came out of the privatization process with a little land but limited access to capital and markets. And because the collective system called for workers to have highly specialized skills, few had the range of knowledge they needed to run a successful independent operation.
Productivity plummeted. It’s estimated that average annual agricultural production in Moldova has declined threefold.
Farmers work their fields by hand, with hoe and pitchfork, and horse-drawn carts appear to be much more common than trucks. They draw their water from wells — the kind with buckets on ropes.
Richardson likens the agricultural conditions in rural Moldova to those in rural North Carolina in the early 1900s, before small-scale farmers had access to the technology and know-how to grow more than they needed to survive and, thus, helped free labor for other economic sectors.
“In Moldova, there is all that capacity — that human capital, a wonderful geographic location, an educational infrastructure that’s just tops,” Richardson says, “but they need to find a way to get beyond labor-intensive agriculture. They just don’t have a sufficient economic infrastructure.”
Indeed, Moldova’s economy has shrunk by some 60 percent over the past decade, ranking as the poorest in Europe when it comes to per-capita gross domestic product. The decline has hurt villagers and city dwellers alike.
In Mereseni, I meet an elderly villager who crochets elaborate doilies and tablecloths to make ends meet. Her husband passed away, and her monthly pension checks — when they are actually paid — amount to no more than $10.
Her children aren’t in a position to help, she says, because they face their own challenges. Indeed, two of them have left Moldova, one for Russia, the other for Italy.
Many of the best and brightest see no other option, explains my interpreter, Inga Murariu. Although her fluency in French, English, Romanian and Russian enables her to earn a good salary, she has no plans to stay through another Chisinau winter.
Her father, who works in a Chisinau die-making factory, hasn’t been paid for four months, and her mother, who works in a medical clinic, gets paid sporadically. Gifts from clinic patients — peaches and figs, for example, grown on their dachas, or garden plots — help.
Mary Peet offers a observation based on her own experience:
“More than anything else, what impressed me about Moldova was the damage to the whole culture that came with the Soviet era, the forced relocation of so many people from Moldova to Siberia, then the loss of the memory of how you do agriculture that came with the collective farms — and then the almost-worse disruption when the system of collectives came apart.
“That loss pervades everything — the way people relate to government, to each other, to authority figures,” she says. “I got the sense that success wasn’t necessarily something that was desirable — that people were afraid to stick their necks out.”
But, she admits, this may be a generalization that explains more exceptions than rules. After all, she talks about a Moldovan scientist who spent time visiting Columbus County extension programs and is now putting together a group of experts to examine the potential for similar systems in his country.
And Beasley points to two agrarian university faculty members who have come away from their experiences in the United States committed to writing textbooks.
“We, in our small way, I think, can make one hell of a difference over there,” he says. “It’s the idea of lighting one candle. We are lighting candles.”
It’s my last Sunday — it’s been a hard week at the federation — and I meet Inga’s family for a picnic in a Chisinau park.
Though their financial situation is tenuous, Inga’s mother, Lidia, and father, John, are generous hosts. John keeps my cup filled with a homemade red wine while he regales me with childhood stories. And, every time I get close to cleaning my plate, Lidia loads it down with more chicken and cucumbers, boiled eggs and peaches.
When it’s time to go, they insist on filling a plastic bag with fresh peaches.
A few days later, as I prepare for the trip home, I’m surprised when Inga brings me yet another gift from her mother — a beautiful crocheted doily.
The generosity is unfathomable.