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ND trade official: Canceled trade missions, denied visas are 'opportunities lost'

Simon Wilson is the new North Dakota Trade Office director. David Samson / The Forum

FARGO — The North Dakota Trade Office says two trade missions to the state have been canceled over ongoing trade difficulties and tariffs. At the same time, a far higher than normal percentage of visas sought by international buyers hoping to attend the Big Iron Farm Show have been denied by immigration officials.

Simon Wilson, executive director of the trade office, says delegations from Italy and Spain had planned to come regarding specialty crops, and a delegation from China had planned to come regarding food-grade soybeans.

"A number of them said they wouldn't be able to market this trade mission as a positive to their customers," Wilson says. "In a roundabout way, it's saying 'We would be seen as supporting a protectionist environment.' "

Wilson also has learned that 18 of 25 visas sought for potential buyers planning to attend Big Iron as part of the International Visitors Program have been denied so far. That's the inverse of the normal rate of denials, he says.

Both issues are examples of "opportunities lost" for North Dakota companies and farmers in the trade arena, Wilson says.

Trade missions off

Wilson says not every trade mission into North Dakota has been canceled, but "for us these were two big missions that would have meant a lot to these businesses."

In March 2018, four North Dakota companies traveled to Naples, Italy, and Madrid, Spain — two of the largest pulse crop markets in Europe — to promote beans, peas, chickpeas, lentils and borage to potential buyers, according to the North Dakota Trade Office.

Wilson says the return trip would have had the buyers North Dakota officials visited in Europe, as well as other companies and officials they weren't able to visit, come to North Dakota to see crops and facilities and gain an understanding and trust for the market here.

North Dakota companies in April visited Shanghai and Anhui province in China during a trade mission supported by the North Dakota Soybean Council. That trip was to promote the state's food-grade, identity-preserved soybeans. Wilson says the soybeans to be marketed would be organic, non-GMO products, and Chinese officials had planned to visit to learn more.

The European and Chinese companies involved all indicated they were unwilling to come at this time because of tariffs put on products by the U.S. The North Dakota Trade Office will work to reschedule the trips for the spring and will try to continue building and maintaining relationships, Wilson says.

The most frustrating part, he says, is that the companies in the other countries are interested in trade and now are looking elsewhere to fill their needs.

"It's going to make it that much harder to get them back," he says. "It'll take some years to build up that trust again."

Josh Gackle, a Kulm, N.D., farmer who sits on the North Dakota Soybean Growers Association board, says such canceled trade missions aren't necessarily leading to more uncertainty for farmers. However, he calls the matter disappointing.

"We always appreciate when those trade groups come from other countries," he says. "That first-hand experience has been very beneficial."

Wilson hopes the trade issues get cleared up sooner than later.

"Tariffs, we don't think, are good for anyone," he says.

Big Iron visas

Wilson says another hot-button issue — immigration — is affecting a long-standing program of the North Dakota Trade Office. So far, visas have been denied for 18 of 25 potential visitors to the Big Iron International Visitors Program.

The program, organized by the North Dakota Trade Office in cooperation with the U.S. Commercial Service, brings potential international buyers to Fargo for the annual Big Iron Farm Show, scheduled this year for Sept. 11-13. More than 900 visitors have come from more than 40 countries since the program began in 2007, including more than 75 visitors from 15 countries in 2017.

With the show only three weeks away, the trade office doesn't know how many people will end up being able to attend. Wilson explains that it's up to consulate staff to determine who gets a visa, and there is no mechanism for appeal.

Though he says he understands and agrees with the need to tighten up border security, he was surprised at the denials, as they came from countries considered relatively "safe." Big Iron has been a "key time to meet new customers," and he worries about impact of potential lost sales if the numbers in the program end up being as reduced as the preliminary figures indicate.

"We're not panicking yet, but we're concerned," Wilson says.

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