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Learning ag skills in ND: State Dept. highlights how its work abroad affects each state

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RURAL LARIMORE — Zsolt Foldi traveled nearly 5,000 miles from Hungary to work on a North Dakota farm.

The 25-year-old exchange student is looking to grow more than just crops but a future for himself with a goal of affecting agriculture in his home country.

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“In Europe, the GMO technology is not a lot,” Foldi said recently, using the abbreviation for genetically-modified organism. “In Europe, the researchers and professors say the GMO is very bad for humans and animals, so why I’m interested in soybeans and other crops is I want to know the truth — I want to see it.”

The benefit to his host family, the Griffins, is they get help on their mid-sized farm and a different perspective on the world.

“It is really good in the sense that it opens up the world and you aren’t as suspicious of other countries,” Linnea Griffin said. “We learn something more about the world every time — the geopolitical situation around the world, what (the world) is like for them... their history.”

She and her husband Chuck have hosted 11 other exchange students through the U.S. Department of State’s J-1 Visa program, which seeks to bolster understanding between Americans and citizens of other countries.

Recently, the State Department launched another program to help bolster Americans’ understanding of U.S. foreign policy and how they benefit. J-1 visas and foreign trade were among the benefits to North Dakota listed by the State Department on an online interactive map that it calls “Department of State by State.”

“This is not everything we do by any means, but people can get an overview of the impact the agency has on their states,” said Assistant Secretary of State Doug Frantz, who oversaw the $10,000 website’s development.

He said Secretary of State John Kerry will make a series of domestic speeches in the coming months to push home the point that Americans should understand the impact of U.S. foreign policy domestically and abroad.

Economic benefits

While North Dakotans have gained a better understanding of the world through the 2,114 college students, interns, scholars and, yes, farm workers along with others the state has hosted, the state has also benefitted more materially through growing global trade.

The State Department website said 100,000 North Dakota jobs are supported by foreign trade in 175 countries and territories, resulting in $6.6 billion in goods exported in 2012 and more than $1 billion services exported in 2011.

Dean Gorder, executive director for the North Dakota Trade Office, confirmed those totals, and said 2013 saw an upward trend in exports with totals reaching just under the $7 billion mark for commercial goods and commodities being exported.

“(International trade in North Dakota) is strong,” he said. “If you go back 10 years, North Dakota is up about 450 percent in its exports.”

New trade agreements with South Korea, Panama and Colombia signed by President Barack Obama in recent years have impacted the state’s trading scene greatly, Gorder said. He also credits North Dakota’s expanding trade to developing countries growing faster than ever, allowing for more flexible disposable incomes to spend on the state’s exports.

“I don’t see any real quantum leaps, but it’s safe to say we can see 10 to 15 percent in growth in future years,” he said.

One farmer who has seen a connection between the J-1 Visa program and trade is Roger Gussiaas, owner of Healthy Oilseeds in Carrington. He told the State Department that hosting students expanded his thinking and led him to expand his business overseas.

“It has opened my mind up,” he said. “We would not have started our export business, (and) we’d be less familiar with the rest of world if it wasn’t for this program.”

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