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Setting Roots: From refugee to orchard owner, immigrant builds new life for family of 12

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Cornelius Gradinariu is standing on his bakery porch on a breezy morning viewing rows of fruit trees, but in his mind, he’s an ocean and a lifetime away standing at the Romanian border viewing rows of armed guards.

For three quarters of a mile, border patrol soldiers wielding massive weapons stood watching for anyone attempting to illegally exit the country. Cornelius does the math: Each soldier carried four magazines with 46 bullets each. There were too many soldiers to count.

“A lot of people died right there,” he says somberly.

But not Cornelius.

His harrowing escape from Communist Romania in 1989, followed by a desperate political game to rescue his wife and children, has brought Cornelius all the way to the quiet patch of 43 acres in Brighton – the site of Gardener’s Orchard & Bakery LLC.

Today, the orchard boasts about 2,000 trees, with another 1,000 to be added in the next year, and 2017 revenue of about $250,000. Products are sold throughout the area at restaurants and stores, in addition to new online ventures.

Cornelius laughs as he explains the irony that Gradinariu in Romanian translates to Gardener in English. This life, he says, was always meant to be.

Gardener’s origins
Cornelius was born in 1963 to a Pentecostal family, and that’s when and how his troubles began.

“From that time, we would be a target,” he says. “It’s bad for (Christians). Some have no bread to eat. Some have no place to live.”

As a child in school, Cornelius recalls being denied accolades. Later, he says, friends were sometimes fired from jobs if their employer found out they were Christian. After completing his mandatory military service, Cornelius began working as an electrician, married his wife Verginia and had three children.

One of those children is now Gardener’s Orchard & Bakery’s account manager: Radu.

Radu was 4 at the time his parents completed their escape and only remembers the dangerous days in flashbacks.

After crossing the border, Cornelius sought shelter at the United Kingdom office in Yugoslavia. There, he was asked to provide a reason for why he left the country.

“I said, ‘I want to serve God. I want to be free,’” he says. “They said, ‘Good reason.’”

On Dec. 25, 1989, the Communist dictator Nicolae Ceausescu was executed, and Cornelius sent a letter to the Romanian Secret Service – which controlled passports – requesting that Verginia could visit him.

“They gave an emergency passport,” he says.

Once Verginia and the children were across the border, they sought refuge with the United Nations.

However, because Verginia only had an emergency passport, she was expected to return to Romania. When her whereabouts were inquired after, the American embassy filed paperwork that allowed her to stay with Cornelius long enough for the family to flee.

The Gradinarius moved to Southern California where Cornelius became recertified as an electrician and learned English. His sister and brother-in-law also had escaped Romania and moved to the Springfield area. When the Gradinariu family visited her, Verginia fell in love with Missouri.

“I bought a house with 10 acres,” Cornelius says of his former Miller property. “It felt so good in a large area.”

That began Cornelius’ stint in poultry farming in 2004. Verginia and their growing family worked the farm, while Cornelius continued his electrical career – until the Great Recession. When he was let go in 2008 from Multi-Craft Contractor’s Inc., Cornelius went to work full time at the farm for nearly six years.

By happenstance, Cornelius met the Brighton orchard’s owner, who expressed intent to sell. The owner asked $305,000 for the property, and Cornelius countered with $285,000.

“In 20 days, I put this in my name,” he says.

The poultry farms were sold, and in 2013, the family of 12 began working the orchard full time.

An apple a day
Fast forward five years.

Since the family was up until 1 a.m. washing apples the night before, their day begins at about 10 a.m. – and it’s a busy day. There are some 350 peach trees that need planting, in addition to plans for three more acres of blackberries and blueberries.

“We’ve got to plan three to five years ahead of anything we do here,” Radu says. “It’s really a planning game, and we hope we get it right.”

Playing the game entails watching market trends and keeping their fingers on the pulse of what customers want. In southern Missouri, Radu says, that’s peaches – which make up 30 percent of the company’s revenue.

The orchard in 2017 produced 4,000 bushels of apples, weighting 40 pounds each. That’s only 50 percent of production, Radu says, as some trees are not yet producing. About 60 percent of the apples are “you-pick” for families that visit the farm. The rest are sold or made into cider.

The purr of a tractor in the distance indicates the process has begun to remove the rocky topsoil in preparation for the peach trees and replace it with new, softer soil. This task was a lesson learned the hard way the first year the Gradinarius owned the orchard.

“We planted 100 trees the first year and they all died,” Radu says, adding that trees cost about $100 upfront between the purchase, labor and machinery.

Once the family developed the topsoil replacement technique, the trees began thriving. And their produce options are expanding, much to the credit of son Andrei, who is studying plant science and horticulture at Missouri State University.

“He is in charge of making sure what we grow grows properly and looks good,” Radu says.

Family rules
The bakery is daughter Aurora’s world.

After obtaining her culinary degree from Ozarks Technical Community College, she began working full time at the family business baking bread, pastries and rolls.

In its first year of operation, the bakery accounted for 10 percent of overall revenue. In 2018, Radu says it’s expected to represent 25 percent of sales. Products are sold in multiple area stores, farmers markets and restaurants, and Radu says the company’s largest seller is at the Rove Coffee in Springfield-Branson National Airport.

For new opportunities, Radu is tapping into online and social media avenues, such as creating cooking tutorial videos and adding an online ordering with free delivery.

Although the business is entirely family operated, Cornelius says he will probably hire outside help in the future. Until then, it’s Cornelius, Verginia and their 10 children working the farm.

“When you have a family run business, you do what needs to be done,” Radu says of the many hats he wears.

But running it isn’t all sunshine and roses either.

“You make sure you get along and work everything out if you don’t get along,” Aurora adds.

It’s a recipe for a healthy family and healthy business where all members can continue enjoying working together. It’s family time, and sometimes when they’re together in the field, Cornelius says he shares stories of his escape from communist dictatorship. Often, the tales seem so far-fetched he’s asked if they’re really true.

Cornelius smiles. He knows what it took to get where he is today.
   
“It wasn’t easy to come here,” he says. “But, everything I see? Praise the Lord.”

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