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"How can we help them?" is the question that retired Manitowoc County dairy farmer and entrepreneur Bob Binversie often asked himself during a 10-year stint of volunteerism in an Eastern European country in the wake of its independence from the former Soviet Union.

The "them" Binversie was referring to are the dairy farmers in Moldova, a largely agricultural country about one quarter of the size of Wisconsin that is located between Ukraine and Romania. It once had as many as 1.5 million dairy cows, but its total is only about 150,000 today, Binversie estimates.

Binversie shared his experiences, which started in May of 2005 and continued until late in 2014, in a presentation to members and guests of the Kiel Area Study Club. He spent a total of 14 months during that period working directly with farmers and government officials and also had 70 Moldovans as guests for average stays of about one week at his home in south central Manitowoc County.

Binversie's background

In addition to having been a dairy farmer himself, Binversie was a seller of Harvestore silos, built 148 apartment house units in Waupaca County, and, with his son Mark, was a founder 17 years ago of the Investors Community Bank, which is a major agricultural lender based in Manitowoc. His son Jay's family owns and operates Robinway Dairy today.

When Binversie first expressed an interest in the international Farmer to Farmer aid project which was overseen by the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) in cooperation with other agencies, he was referred to the now late Norval Dvorak — a fellow Manitowoc County resident and a pioneer and longtime volunteer in the same program.

Within a week, Binversie received a reply from the USDA offering him a choice of going to Kenya in east Africa or Moldova. He chose Moldova because he and his first wife (the late Janet) had taken a trip earlier to Russia, where they observed many of the same very primitive living and agricultural production conditions that were also affecting Moldova.

Recovery challenges

During its reign, the Soviet Union restructured agriculture within Russia and its satellite countries into large production units or "cooperative farms" with up to 7,000 cows, 10,000 crop acres, high numbers of other food animals such as hogs or poultry and large farming equipment, Binversie noted. The workers employed at those farms lived in nearby villages, not at the farms.

Following the breakup of the Soviet Union, many of those large enterprises faced a similar fate and anyone who wanted to farm virtually had to start from scratch. And, for the most part, they had no or very little money to do so, he pointed out.

Among the drawbacks that Binversie encountered and that resulted in very low milk production per cow were the feeding of hay that he described as "broomsticks," cattle breeds such as Simmentals and others that are not primarily dairy breeds, the reliance on a "village bull" accompanied by the refusal to use semen (artificial insemination) to improve cattle genetics, the failure to house or feed dairy cattle of various ages as separate groups, the effort by someone whom he described as "not a dairyman" to try to operate a dairy farm and another one about whom he concluded that any further efforts would be "a waste of my time."

During his contacts with the country's minister of agriculture, Binversie faced strong opposition to his suggestions to import semen, even learning that previously obtained semen was being discarded, and had his proposal for importing Holstein cattle rejected for a while.

At one farm with 100 cows, Binversie learned that all of the milk was being fed to pigs. Another incident that he encountered was the construction of an outdoor milking parlor with no realization that there is winter in the area every year.

Binversie's direct efforts

In his first visit to Moldova, Binversie was linked with a young woman language translator (Rodica) who was soon promoted to another position and was then replaced as translator by her husband (Eugene), who was trained as a gynecologist. With Binversie's help, Eugene became interested in farming and has developed a business of selling milking parlors, free-stall barns, and farm machinery.

That initial connection bloomed into a solid friendship ever since then with Eugene's parents Nic and Marie — an executive at a factory making large luggage and a physical therapist respectively. They live in the capital city of Chisinau (population of more than 700,000 or about 20 percent of Moldova's total).

During a visit from November 2 to 20, 2014, Binversie and his second wife Kathy were guests at that couple's home. Kathy describes them as "the most humble and loving people you would ever meet." While there, the Binversies were showered with many gifts, including a shawl, decorated bottles of wine, ornate needlework and other items that they displayed for the presentation here.

Success stories

Despite the financial challenges, the lack of experience, a reluctance to consider or accept changes, and a lack of supporting infrastructure, Binversie listed a number of success stories on the farms he has worked with. He disclosed that he also provided financial assistance to a few of the farmers, including for the construction of a bunker silo at one of them.

Among those successes are a doubling of daily milk production by a herd of 10 cows from 250 to 500 pounds following an upgrade in the hay quality, the eventual importing of semen and 2,000 dairy heifers from Holland, the installation of milking parlors (the largest one for milking 400 cows), a herd of more than 250 cows managed by a young woman that is averaging over 70 pounds of milk daily per cow and the installation of ventilation inside barns.

Amid the many episodes, experiences and encounters, Binversie commented that "the lights went on" for some of the people that he was advising. He is also proud of his role in helping to develop the online information source titled Moldova Dairy Farm Service Agency that dates to 2010.

On the home turf

Binversie has also lent financial support for their travel costs to some of the more than 70 visitors from Moldova who have come to his home. He notes that the USDA's financial support of the Farmer to Farmer program has ended.

While on their visits, Binversie took those guests to dairy farms in the area and to dairy production plants such as the nearby Henning's Cheese. During their visits, he also insisted that they provide him with written plans covering one week, one month, three years and five years on how they would improve their own dairy operations.

Ongoing challenges

Within Moldova, tough challenges and dire conditions remain, Binversie stated. As is the case with most of Europe, Russia cut off trade for agricultural products more than two years ago.

Moldova, which has been an independent country since 1994 and has the highest population density of the former Soviet socialist republics, has had five prime ministers in the past two years and was recently the victim of a $1 billion theft from its banking system — the equivalent of about one eighth of its annual economy, Binversie reported. He noted that foreign aid is very limited but there is hope for a pending loan from Poland.

Although Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, it enjoys one distinction that the Binversies saw during their last visit in November of 2014. Recognized by the Guinness Book of World Records, the country has a winery with a storage capacity of more than 2 million bottles that is located in an extensive underground area.

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