Growing up on a livestock farm in Central Illinois, Debra Kuper thought becoming a lawyer would mean leaving the agriculture industry behind. But as vice president, general counsel and secretary of farm equipment manufacturer AGCO Corp., she unites her history on the farm with her skills as an attorney every single day.

“I know the customers,” she says. “I know the importance of having a sophisticated piece of machinery. I know it’s their livelihood.”

Kuper started her in-house career with construction equipment company Case Corp. Case merged with a competitor, New Holland, in 1999, forming manufacturing giant CNH Global. As a result of the merger, several members of Case’s legal team were laid off–but Kuper was promoted to senior counsel of corporate governance.

The timing couldn’t have been better. Two years later, with the passage of the Sarbanes-Oxley Act, Kuper shot to prominence within CNH. She became a SOX expert and traveled the country teaching attorneys at other companies how to integrate SOX into their corporate structure.

After an in-house stint with Wal-Mart and what she describes as a “career-defining move” to Caterpillar, Kuper landed at Atlanta-based AGCO in May 2008. She manages a 28-person legal team spread across eight countries, balancing the everyday tests of in-house work with the special challenges that managing such an international team presents.

“Even though they’re dispersed around the world, they have a team spirit,” she says. “It’s a relatively young company, and the team is young and dynamic. There’s a lot of enthusiasm.”

Q: What challenges do you face managing AGCO’s international legal team?

A: I have 18 lawyers–10 are women, by the way. They are all embedded with the business unit. I want them to be business people who just happen to be lawyers. The challenge is that they’re spread out. I have six in the U.K., but the rest are spread between Argentina, Brazil, France, Germany, Russia and Switzerland.

I try to get together with them about twice a year. It’s all about communication: making sure everyone knows what’s going on. If there’s going to be a new development in France, they make sure the German and Russian attorneys know about it because they may be sharing parts or sharing patents or sharing employees. I try to make sure everyone knows what everyone else on my legal team is doing.

Q: As AGCO expands into emerging markets such as Russia and China, what does that mean for your legal department?

A: As we go into these new markets, we usually try to hire local people. If we are in South Africa, we hire a local South African; if we’re in India, we hire an Indian. So it’s going to be an international, totally diverse team by the time I’m done. We try to appreciate the differences in corporate cultures throughout the world, but it’s just better to have a local, regional counsel on the business team who knows the law, who knows the customs and who knows the traditions. Otherwise they think, “Oh, someone from headquarters is coming in. He’s the cop just coming in to tell us what to do.”

Q: How has the legal department changed since you’ve been with the company?

A: I hired two new patent attorneys. I’m trying to bring some of that patent work in-house because it’s proprietary; it’s competitive. I’m looking into hiring an information technology attorney because we have to meet emission requirements, manage e-commerce and oversee all this sophisticated technology. When I get r?sum?s, I have a little file that I keep for compliance experts because I’d like to have a compliance officer. Right now I’m the compliance officer, but I’m also the general counsel, and I really think you need someone dedicated just to compliance.

Q: How have the new administration’s stronger environmental policies affected your work?

A: We are all over that. It’s a good thing for us. We want to push alternative fuel because that means selling more tractors in order to harvest soybeans or sunflowers or sugar.

We’re always looking at what’s going on in D.C. to see what the new requirements are. Not only do we need to fix our tractors to meet these new emission requirements, but we also need to think, “OK, what are the new fuels that are going to go into the tractor? How can the tractor be made to cultivate those new fuels?” If we’re going to be harvesting sugar cane, we need to have a different tractor and a different implement.

Q: What are some legal issues unique to working in agriculture?

A: We have a lot of manufacturing facilities. There’s that mandatory greenhouse gas reporting stuff that’s going on. We want to make sure we are abiding by that. Because we were cobbled together by so many mergers and acquisitions, we’re just now making sure that they are running smoothly. Now we’re looking at what they call “greenfield” opportunities: going into a place like China and finding a good manufacturing facility that’s close to the shipping ports but also close to farmers. We want to make sure we sell [equipment] to the local farmers as well as export it, so it has to do with where foodstuffs are going to be cultivated. We’re always trying to figure out, economically, where’s the next big region that needs tractors.

Q: What do you like best about your job?

A: I really like my co-workers. Six of them are [in Atlanta]. We go out for lunch every day. And they all have a farming background. Either we grew up on a farm or we worked for a farm company. But we’re all professionals, so it’s really neat to be around this group of people that’s really down to earth, really honest. They have this farmer’s integrity and work ethic, yet at the same time they’re very professional and sophisticated. It’s just a great corporate culture. Everyone respects everyone.

Q: How do you think growing up on a farm impacted your work ethic?

A: My family worked hard, but we were all in it together, so we saw the value of hard work and consistency. It will get you places. There’s a little bit of pain, but once you come through it, in the end there’s satisfaction.

Q: I’ve heard rumors recently about a merger with CMH. Is there any truth to those rumors?

A: We’re not actively working on that. It would be great. We were cobbled together by so many acquisitions that if something interesting came along, we would consider it, but right now we’re working on growing organically. Making sure there are consistent policies and procedures throughout the organization. Making sure we all have the same payroll system, the same training, the same e-mail accounts–because we had so many acquisitions, people had different e-mail accounts, different Web pages, different everything. Right now we’re trying to integrate, but it would be great if something like that would open up.

Q: If you weren’t an attorney, what would be your dream job?

A: I could probably be–and I did this for a little while after law school–a professor. It’s kind of how I see my team here: I like encouraging them. I got a late start. I like seeing people grow and flourish. I’m their biggest coach but their biggest cheerleader at the same time.