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Promoting Iowa agriculture internationally

Article cover photo
Mark Fischer (left) and Susan Fischer (right) pause for a photo with Ambassador Terry Branstad and Governor Kim Reynolds during a reception in China in 2017. (Photo: Joseph L. Murphy/Iowa Soybean Association)

By Lauren Houska, ISA digital media manager

The Iowa Economic Development Authority's (IEDA) mission is to strengthen economic and community vitality by building partnerships and leveraging resources to make Iowa the choice for people and business.

Mark Fischer has been leading the IEDA International Trade Office’s (ITO) agricultural trade promotion programs for more than 20 years. The ITO organizes trade missions, trade shows, in-bound international buyers groups and provides businesses with international market research and other assistance to help them succeed.

Fischer has also served as the IEDA’s representative on the Iowa Soybean Association’s (ISA) Information & Education Committee. Set to retire this month, he sat down with ISA to discuss international trade trends, opportunities and challenges.

How have Iowa’s agricultural exports changed over the last 20 years?
In 2001, Iowa’s agricultural exports totaled $3.5 billion. In 2018, that number had grown to $10.6 billion, a 300% increase. We continue to see new opportunities for agricultural products around the world. With our production advancements, we are able to produce more to help feed a growing world, driven by the world population’s increasing disposable income and resulting desire to increase protein consumption.

What story do you tell to promote Iowa agriculture globally?
Iowa enjoys a very good reputation around the world. Iowa is recognized as a leader in agriculture. There’s a holistic approach to Midwestern agriculture. We use the gifts Mother Nature provides plus advancements in technology to produce soybeans and corn, which we then feed to livestock and the waste produced by livestock is incorporated into the soil for nutrients. This system gives us an economic advantage, as well as environmental and social impact advantages. That’s a story our global consumers can feel good about and we as a country can be more self-reliant as we provide some of the lowest-cost food for consumers around the world.

Why is it beneficial for farmers to participate in trade missions?
Buyers tend to assume that dealing with the U.S. means dealing with corporate America and that “corporate giants” are calling the shots for farmers. Midwestern farmers tend to be more diversified in the products they raise, so having them involved on these trade missions and telling their stories and decision-making processes reinforces our holistic agriculture messaging. Every product has a face and a story behind it.

What are international customers looking for in agricultural products?
Price. Reliability. Quality.

The U.S. stands out in quality because our systems are recognized as transparent. We have government officials who evaluate and ensure the customer is getting what they are supposed to be getting.

We are generally seen as a reliable supplier, but that can sometimes be called into question because of things outside of U.S. agriculture’s control, like weather events, transportation hiccups or even labor strikes. We have to do things that help rebuild that trust with our customers. Our trade missions help greatly with helping customers understand that we will continue to be a reliable supplier.

Price is an issue for most international buyers and the U.S. is very competitively priced in many of these markets. The limiting factors continue to be whether we have access to those markets and if we have fair and equitable tariff structures. When we have a level playing field, we can continue to be a reliable supplier of quality, affordable products.

What does sustainability mean to international customers?
Different countries have different ideas of sustainability and might phrase or frame it much differently than our domestic customers. Take Japan, which is a critically important export market for Iowa agriculture. They want to market products with a story. If I go into a Japanese supermarket and I’m looking at a package of pork, there will be a picture of the pig farmer and, in some cases, I can go to a kiosk and get background on the farmer and how the pig was raised. This concept is becoming more prominent among Japanese consumers, but each country has their own expectations around sustainability and traceability and what they are willing to pay for it.

What areas of the world offer the most potential for growing Iowa’s agricultural exports?
There are lots of different ways of looking at emerging and maintaining global customers. One has to acknowledge that China, with 1.3 billion people, will always be an important factor and whether they purchase from the U.S. or from someone else, that can influence the prices we receive.

If you look at the numbers and growth trends, southeast Asia has huge growth potential for the future, including countries like Vietnam, Malaysia, Indonesia, Thailand, and the Philippines. There has been more optimism on India, which will likely soon overtake China as the largest population in the world. But they also have more trade barriers in place, so we will have to see some serious changes there before we can become serious players in that market.

What are some challenges we might have to overcome to grow?
You have to look at the right country and the right opportunity. Africa is surprisingly showing up on more companies’ target lists. Particularly on the grain side, we face some challenges in Africa. They are focused on growing and exporting products to the European Union (EU) and they are concerned about genetically modified crops from the U.S. interfering with those efforts.

There is a battle in some of these regions of the world between the EU standards and the U.S. standards. We need to be out front, sharing our openness to technology, which can be challenging. I see groups like ISA, the U.S. Soybean Export Council and others working on these issues.

Which countries would be considered success stories for Iowa agriculture?
While it may not be the largest growth market in the next ten years, it’s critically important that we continue to focus on Japan. It is, in my opinion, the most important export market for Iowa agriculture. It’s the No. 1 market for pork, No. 2 market for beef, No. 2 market for 2 corn and No. 3 market for soybeans. They pay good prices and they are very loyal. Everyone wants to sell to Japan, and we cannot take that market for granted.

The U.S.-Mexico-Canada Agreement , formerly the North American Trade Agreement is and has been the most important trade deal the U.S. has ever signed. The stability that the agreement and the infrastructure between the three countries  provides for both suppliers and customers is incredibly important. This agreement allows us to position Iowa as a “one-stop-shop” for our customers to the north and south. Getting that agreement ratified will be great for Iowa.

Finally, what has been your favorite part of your job over the years?
Outreach. I have had the opportunity to help Iowa businesses explore new markets around the globe and position Iowa as an optimal place to start or expand businesses. I frequently traveled outside the Des Moines area to engage with Iowans and figure out their goals, understand their challenges and serve as a resource to help them succeed.

Contact Lauren Houska at lhouska@iasoybeans.com.

For media inquiries, permission to republish articles or to request high-res photos, please contact Katie James, ISA Public Relations Manager at kjames@iasoybeans.com. © 2020 Iowa Soybean Association. All rights reserved.