Letting Rural America Shine

CAFNR Alumnus and new Executive Director of the Hannibal Regional Economic Development Council Maria Kuhns is passionate about making rural Missouri a place to live, work, and thrive

“The reason I picked Mizzou is that it felt so down to Earth,” Maria Kuhns said. “CAFNR felt like they were all humble folks.

Kuhns graduated with a B.S. in Agribusiness Management in 2019 and an M.S. in Agriculture and Applied Economics in 2021. Photo courtesy of Maria Kuhns.

“It was very understated. I felt very nurtured and so it made a lot of sense to me to choose Mizzou. And I think I needed a little push out of my comfort zone and a little out-of-state anonymity to really become who I wanted to be in undergrad.”

Growing up in Illinois on a hog farm and as an active FFA member, Kuhns, who graduated from CAFNR with her bachelor’s in 2019 and master’s in 2021, knew she wanted to go into agriculture, but her father encouraged her to get a more well-rounded degree.

“Dad graduated from high school in the ’80s and had to go work in the natural gas fields because there were no jobs in ag,” Kuhns said. “He thought if I got a business degree, I would have more options to go into different careers if something like that happened again.”

Thankfully, the agribusiness management degree at Mizzou was perfect for Kuhns. During the multifaceted degree, Kuhns learned about business management, finance, marketing, human resources and more. She then completed a master’s in agriculture and applied economics, where she researched rural development.

After finishing her master’s degree, Kuhns found a job opening as the entrepreneurship specialist director with the Small Business Development center in Hannibal. Photo courtesy of Maria Kuhns.

“CAFNR and ag business are so entrepreneurial and encourage students to think like entrepreneurs,” Kuhns said, “and during my four years in undergrad I thought ‘Wow! Missouri and the Midwest are so cool and so full of these amazing small places that sometimes feel forgotten about and have so much potential’ and that’s kind of how I got to my job in Hannibal.”

After finishing her master’s degree, Kuhns found a job opening as the entrepreneurship specialist director with the Small Business Development Center in Hannibal. Her husband, and fellow Mizzou agribusiness management alumnus, Zach Callow, was able to work remotely for Cargill so the couple could move. They fell in love with the Hannibal area, and, after working as the entrepreneurship specialist for two years, Kuhns was recently selected as the Executive Director of the Hannibal Regional Economic Development Council.

“The Small Business Development center provides no-cost counseling to small businesses to help them do things like write business plans, manage their financial statements or apply for loans,” Kuhns said. “Basically, if a small business has a challenge or something they haven’t faced before, they come to us.”

The Hannibal Regional Economic Development Council is a non-profit that promotes growth and new investment in Marion and Ralls Counties to improve the quality of life of citizens. HREDC focuses on business retention and expansion, business recruitment, workforce development, and infrastructure initiatives among others to grow the region.

As the Entrepreneurship Specialist, Kuhns received the Rookie of the Year Award for her impressive performance in her first two years at the SBDC. Photo courtesy of Maria Kuhns.

Kuhns praised the versatility of her degree in helping prepare her for the Executive Director role.

“I learned just enough about so many things to feel confident to come in and talk to these businesses about a variety of things,” Kuhns said. “I know that I’m not the expert in everything, but Mizzou taught me the skills and gave me the network to help these businesses find answers.”

Kuhns also believes that this role helps her marry both the people skills and the technical financial management skills she gained at Mizzou.

“Money matters,” Kuhns said, “You have to have money to keep your doors open, and that makes sense to people. But I think what has made me successful in this position is my ability to communicate how passionate I am about making sure Marion and Ralls County are successful and that I really want to make people proud of living and working here.”

Kuhns is excited to take on this new opportunity and continue using her CAFNR education to make the Hannibal area thrive.

“I love figuring out how to make this little corner of the world that has a lot of really special stuff going on competitive in the market against metropolitan areas all over the country,” Kuhns said.