Cruise ships, ocean liners, barges and cargo ships pass through the bustling Panama Canal in early February. However, one frequent visitor through the waterway is starkly quiet.
Historically, at least 60 boats of soybeans are passing through the Panama Canal during this time of year. To date, there has only been one, a sign that the U.S. and China aren’t the only countries adversely impacted by the ongoing trade war.
Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) Chief Operations Officer Karey Claghorn recently returned from a trade mission to Colombia and Panama. She traveled there with representatives from the Iowa pork and Iowa corn associations in addition to Lieutenant Governor Adam Gregg and Iowa Secretary of Agriculture Mike Naig.
Claghorn said the mission was a valuable opportunity to see Iowa agricultural products consumed abroad — and potentially capitalize on a growing market.
“These countries are smaller markets, but they are growing,” Claghorn says. “We need to see which markets we can further tap into.”
The U.S. holds a free trade agreement with both Colombia and Panama. Colombia is the fourth largest country by population in Latin America and continues to grow.
Nearly 90 percent of Colombia’s pork and soybean imports are from the U.S.
“Walking along supermarkets, we saw Blue Bunny Ice Cream from Le Mars and Hormel pepperoni that was produced in Osceola,” Claghorn says. “We saw cooking oil labeled as soy oil.”
Due to Colombia’s terrain, logistically it’s easier and more costeffective to import soybeans than grow them.
“Our farmers are our best ambassadors,” Claghorn says. “When buyers can put a face behind the pork products or soybean meal, customers think of those farmers when making purchasing decisions. We met with people who make those purchasing decisions, and it gave them the opportunity to ask our farmers questions and pass that information down the supply chain. Relationships make the difference.”
ISA Board President Lindsay Greiner is one of those farmers making an international difference.
WITH ALL THINGS BEING EQUAL, TRADE COMES DOWN TO RELATIONSHIPS. PEOPLE DO BUSINESS WITH PEOPLE.
Greiner has learned this fact as he has served as a trade representative in the Philippines, Vietnam, Germany, Poland, Italy, Norway, Egypt, Spain, Mexico and China.
As a farmer promoting U.S. soy around the globe, Greiner sees firsthand the many perceptions of U.S. agriculture and proudly regales a theme of general positivity.
“Perceptions are very good. If you tell them you’re a farmer from Iowa, they know we have the best land in the world,” says Greiner. “They know we are progressive farmers who embrace technology to continuously improve our practices.”
For soybean leaders like Claghorn and Greiner, the importance of these trips cannot be overstated. As a continued trade stalemate impacts soybean farmers’ abilities to sell to China, expanding markets elsewhere is a primary objective of the soybean checkoff.
“I wish it were as simple as getting a call as soon as we return from a trade mission, and the country tells us they’d like to purchase all our soybeans,” Greiner says. “It takes work, patience and time.”
Recalling his recent trip to Barcelona, Spain, for a global soybean buyers conference, Greiner detailed his discussion with a fellow farmer about the results of such trade missions.
“I asked him how much good comes out of these trade missions, and he said, ‘I’ll tell you the good we’d be doing if we weren’t here — none.’”
In addition to establishing trade relationships, Claghorn says the global perspective helps U.S. agriculture remain competitive.
“We learn about these international markets and what they need,” Claghorn says. “How are they using our product? What challenges are being faced? Can we improve things?”
Claghorn recalls Panamanians being concerned for their upcoming presidential election in May. Several candidates are calling into question their free trade agreement with the U.S. Deriving 30 percent of its gross domestic product from the Canal, Panama is one of many countries adversely impacted by a lack of trade.
As U.S. soybean farmers know, trade is a backbone of their bottom line. Trade agreements with other countries remain imperative as the soybean market struggles to gain back the $2-per-bushel decline from the last 12 months of Chinese trade tensions.
As Greiner prepares to visit China at the end of March once again, his thoughts on relationship building, even within a tumultuous trade partnership, remain steadfast.
“I really hope we get a trade deal worked out with China, and I know trips like this get us closer,” he says. It will be one year since my last visit, so it will be interesting to see their perception of everything from the last year. I’d like to know some of the prospects of getting that market share back, should a trade deal be worked out.”
Agriculture and international diplomacy continue to go hand-inhand when it comes to trade.
“Having a relationship with a customer is what will keep them buying,” says Claghorn.