Kanlaya Barr is a typical Midwestern girl — except that she isn’t at all.
Sure, she went to college in Iowa. Sure, she met her future husband in a class while there. Sure, she started a family and went to work for John Deere.
But Kanlaya’s story is anything but typically Midwestern. And that story begins with her first name, which is pronounced GUH-lee-uh. Galia?
“Yes, that’s because I was born and raised in Thailand,” explains Barr, “and that specific letter in Thai always translates as a ‘K,’ but is always pronounced as a ‘G.’”
Barr is a senior economist for Deere & Company, which represents a long journey, not just in miles, but also in culture. Though she grew up in Thailand, her heritage is Chinese.
“All four of my grandparents were Chinese immigrants,” she said. She paused and then apologized for her raspy voice. She and her husband have three young boys, and she thought she picked up a cold from one of them. “My grandparents migrated from China to Thailand in the 1940s, so my parents were second‑generation Chinese in Thailand, and I am the third.”
Barr’s grandparents fled widespread starvation in China, caused by the Chinese Civil War and the Second Sino-Japanese War. The Chinese diaspora, which sent immigrants throughout southeast Asia, created a significant minority among Thailand’s population of 70 million.
“My grandparents were manual laborers who emigrated to a rural part of Thailand,” Barr said. “In Thailand, there is a saying ‘Sei Pean Mon Bai,’ which means ‘one rug and one pillow.’ That was how they arrived in Thailand. They settled in Ubon, and that’s pretty much rice country. So I was born in a remote town in the midst of jasmine rice paddies.”
Her first move away from those paddies was to another small town, but this one was not far from Branson. Branson, Missouri. About 9,000 miles from her home in Thailand.
College: A Family First
“In high school, I was an exchange student,” she recalled of her time in rural Missouri. Even though she had studied English for a couple hours each week as part of her regular curriculum in Thailand, American English, and especially American English with a southern Missouri accent, took some getting used to. “I did not recognize it. The people spoke very slowly for me.”
For college — she was the first in her immediate family to attend college — Barr left Ubon, a town with approximately 100,000 residents, to move to Bangkok, a sprawling city with more than 8 million inhabitants. Bangkok touches the Gulf of Thailand and sits about midway between the country’s borders with Myanmar and Cambodia. To save money, Barr moved into her grandparents’ house on the outskirts of Bangkok. Closer, but not exactly close.
“Bangkok has a lot of wild traffic,” she laughed. “To go from my grandmother’s house to my university, it would be three hours one way.”
The commute didn’t deter her, and she graduated from Thammasat University with a degree in economics.
“I have an uncle who was an economist,” she said, “and he has his own small business. I thought he was very successful, so I wanted to be like him. I thought that having an economics degree could be very beneficial.”
Economics plays a role in other disciplines — notably social science, finance, psychology, international trade, and of course agriculture — so the choice of degree was prescient. And so was her decision to pursue a graduate degree in economics. Probably in more ways than Barr might’ve anticipated. But first, a stint in the “real world.”
Go West, Young Woman
“I spent a couple years working at the Bank of Tokyo Mitsubishi in Bangkok to save some money and to get a little experience,” said Barr. “And then I applied to grad school.”
She applied to a few schools — all in the U.S. — including Iowa State University in Ames, Iowa, which offered a “really good agriculture-economics program,” she said. “The school also had a very good graduate assistantship program, which included a stipend. And that’s how I landed at Iowa State.”
Which was a bit of a shock. Not only did the people talk faster than she was used to, but the farming was different from anything she’d seen growing up in Thailand.
“Before I left Thailand in 2002, I spent one last week in Ubon, where I saw a few walk-behind tractors,” Barr recalled. “The majority of the farm work was done by water buffalo. So going from there to Iowa, where I saw huge combines harvesting corn, was a big shock.”
And, of course, there was the weather.
The average monthly temperatures in Bangkok range from a low of 71 degrees Fahrenheit in December to a high of 96 in April. In Iowa, average monthly temperatures range from a low of 12 degrees in January to a high of 85 in July.
“It was also a big cultural shock,” Barr added. “I thought I was prepared with my English, but any conversation outside the classroom I had a hard time following because I didn’t have enough context and American vocabulary. It was very difficult.”
She adapted, though. “We had a very good support system,” Barr said. “We had a Thai Student Association that really was helpful, teaching us how to shop for groceries, how to drive, how to find an apartment, how to find roommates, and things like that.
“In Thailand, the funny thing is we don’t cook,” Barr said. “Eating street food is so cheap that I didn’t learn how to cook. I never made any food myself because it was so much more expensive. So my roommate helped me figure out how to use a rice cooker.” She laughed at the irony of being a life-long rice-eater and not knowing how to use a rice-cooker.
During her stay at the university from 2002–2009, she collected three advanced degrees — a masters in accounting, a masters in economics, and a doctorate in economics.
She also met fellow student Barrett Barr, now a strategy lead at Deere’s Intelligent Solutions Group, in an agricultural economics class. “I thought that was quite a coincidence,” she laughed, “because it was the first ag-econ class he took, and we both ended up pursuing ag economics-related careers at Deere.”
After graduate school, she took a job as a derivatives analyst for Aviva Investors in Des Moines, Iowa, before joining Barrett in Kansas City and then joining Deere in 2011.
“We were in Kansas City for a few years,” she said, “and then I had an opportunity to move to Milan, Illinois, and work with our Worldwide Parts operation. The forecasting process for our Worldwide Parts business was a really fun experience. That was my first time managing a global team.”
After that, she transferred to the enterprise market research team as an economist for Region 3, which includes Central and South America. In 2017, she joined the Office of the Chief Economist as a senior economist.
Connecting the Dots
“What she brings to our team is a great balance of analytical skills and expertise,” said Deere & Company Chief Economist Luke Chandler. “Kanlaya has a great way of finding the data, interpreting it, and then communicating the impact on our business to stakeholders.”
Chandler added that “everyone who engages with Kanlaya is immediately taken with her positive attitude and energy. She’s a great team player and a great reflection of what it means to be a Deere employee.”
In Barr’s case, it sometimes means being the voice of reason.
“If you only look at the news to assess the trade situation between the U.S. and China, you might think the sky is falling,” she said. “But part of my job is to help the enterprise understand the market fundamentals and not just what’s coming out of social media.”
Finding the key pieces of information can require a bit of detective work.
“I love connecting the dots,” she said, “applying economic theory and turning hundreds or even thousands of news and data points into useful and actionable insights for Deere.”
As a senior economist, Barr anticipates and analyzes events and conditions that may affect Deere in the short and long term, which allows Deere to optimize its operations.
In particular, Barr provides industry forecasts and economic outlooks that are used for production and strategic planning.
She has to cut through the noise and determine how the ag machinery industry will be impacted by countless variables.
When she completes her analysis, Barr reviews it with Chandler, and eventually the analysis will make its way to the board of directors and senior leaders — whoever can use the analysis to make better decisions for Deere.
How difficult is it to go from being a child in a small village in Thailand to being a senior economist for a company with operations on six continents?
“I could not have done it without my family’s support,” Barr said. “We did not have much, but my mother always put education first. There are failures along the way, but my grandparents never gave up when they left China, and I wouldn’t either.”
The journey, she said, has been beyond anything she ever imagined. “The company has provided me with challenging opportunities for almost a decade,” Barr added, “and I get to work with people from various backgrounds and different countries.”
Though she’s had many great experiences, one stands out among all the others.
“One of my favorite things about being a part of Deere,” she said, “is that I get to tell my three little boys that I help make tractors, and now they point out every John Deere machine we see!”