EAST EARL, Pa. — Alexi Rotaru has a simple message for his American friends: He and his fellow Moldovans are working hard at improving the lives and the livelihoods of small farmers in Moldova, one of the poorest countries in Europe. And bit by bit, they are succeeding.

Rotaru was in the U.S. earlier this month as a guest of Agri-Service Moldova, a nonprofit organization of mostly volunteers which is based in Christiana, Pennsylvania. It was founded in 2003 by Leland and Wilma Miller, Daniel and Mary Ellen Ness, Jim and Joan Ranck, and Leslie and Suzanne Yoder. The founders all have strong ties to the ag community and to their churches.

Agri-Service members, sponsors and donors met with Rotaru on March 13, when he was guest of honor at a banquet at Shady Maple Smorgasbord.

Rotaru is an associate pastor at Jesus the Good Shepherd, an evangelical church in the Moldovan capital of Chisinau. He doesn’t consider himself a farmer, but his mother, Agnesa, is a former university professor who taught agriculture. The mother-son duo have started an agriculture project in Bulboci, a village of 2,000 about 100 miles northeast of Chisinau.

The Rotarus are teaching the people of Bulboci and seven surrounding villages about raised bed intensive vegetable gardening, greenhouse production, and hazelnut and berry production. They’re also building a facility to raise rabbits and chickens.

The Rotarus have started a Bible study group in their home, and plan to start an evangelical church in Bulboci.

While evangelism is part of the Rotarus’ mission, as well as that of Agri-Service Moldova, AMS is strictly a non-denominational organization. Orthodox Christianity is by far the primary religion for the country’s 4 million citizens, and AMS has no creed requirement of people who want their service.

Leslie Yoder, one of the AMS founders, introduced Rotaru to the Shady Maple audience and spoke briefly about the organization’s work in Moldova. In a telephone conversation a few days later, he answered the question, “Why Moldova?”

“We didn’t find Moldova,” Yoder said, “Moldova found us.”

In 2003, a man from Moldova visited Lancaster County as part of his work with Hope International, a Christian organization that provides training and financial services to low-income families in Eastern Europe, Africa and South America. The Moldovan visited a small group of people who eventually founded AMS to do on a small scale for Moldova what Hope International does on three continents.

“We had never even heard of Moldova,” Yoder said, but the group decided to focus their efforts on the struggling country. Their first outreach was a gift of seed, fertilizer and herbicides to a Moldovan farmer. When an AMS group visited him after his 2005 harvest, they learned that his yields had doubled from the year before.

That’s when AMS began in earnest. Yoder retired as vice president of marketing from Homestead Nutrition, a New Holland firm that provides seed, soil amendments, fertilizer and livestock supplements to the farming community. His background is a comfortable fit for the mission in Moldova, and he said he spends 90 percent of his time on the AMS ministry.

In addition to its work with farmers, AMS also operates a kindergarten in Chisinau and a home for the elderly in Dancu. The 35 kindergarten students are mostly from troubled families, and the elderly residents of Dancu are mostly indigents who have been largely abandoned by their families.

Moldovans are smart and hard-working, Yoder said, but they are poor because their long and complicated history has left them with crumbling infrastructure and inadequate social institutions. A brief Google tour reveals that the country’s political story is as much about theater and turmoil as it is about governance. The borders have changed over the centuries, but today Moldova is sandwiched between Ukraine on the east and Romania on the west. Like Ukraine, it was part of the USSR until it was freed from Russian rule when the Soviet Union formally dissolved on Dec. 31, 1991. It became a parliamentary democracy in 1992, and as a young country it continues to struggle with governance, economic difficulties, production and marketing challenges and working men and women who migrate to Europe for better paying work.

But the country has good soils, Yoder said, mostly a rich sandy loam that can be managed for excellent yields. Its internet system — because it started from scratch with up-to-date technology — is one of the most efficient and cheapest in Europe. It has a thriving wine industry. And it’s a pretty country, Yoder said, worth a visit, although Western-style accommodations are not exactly abundant.

A lot of the AMS work is with small dairy farmers who produce for their own family consumption, with excess marketed to local processors and cheese plants. By “small herd” Yoder means one to six cows. There are some 40-cow herds and maybe a dozen or so 100-plus cow herds in the country.

AMS has worked with farmers who began averaging 20 pounds of milk per cow per day, Yoder said. Some of those farmers are now getting 55 pounds per day with, to quote Yoder, “non-Holstein genetics.”

Corn yields in some cases have been equally impressive, with 200-plus bushels on some acres.

Cheese has been a bit of a success story, with some Moldovan cheesemakers visiting production facilities in the U.S. to gain more knowledge. Yoder told his Shady Maple audience about one Moldovan cheesemaker who produced a batch of 50-pound cheese wheels that seemed to go horribly wrong. When the wheels were shelved for aging, they ballooned in size. Nobody knew what to do with the wheels, so they took them outside town, dug a pit and buried them.

Some time later, one of the cheesemakers noticed the village dogs digging up the cheese and eating it. Intrigued, the cheesemaker unearthed a wheel of his own and took a taste. It was delicious. In analyzing what went “wrong” with the batch, they discovered that they had stumbled upon a time-honored way of making a delicious cheese.

That variety is now the best selling cheese in Moldova.

Moldovans are determined through hard work to make their country’s agriculture — and their country — a modern success, Yoder said.

As the cheese story shows, it doesn’t hurt to have a few lucky breaks along the way.

Dick Wanner is a reporter/photographer for Lancaster Farming. He can be reached at rwanner.eph@lnpnews.com.