BISMARCK, N.D. — In 2019, more than 100 people from more than 15 countries participated in the North Dakota Trade Office’s International Visitors Program, a staple of the Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo. In 2020, the best the program could hope for would be a few international guests stopping by the Trade Office’s booth at the show.

“Because of the coronavirus, we haven’t had a lot of interest in it,” said Drew Combs, director of the North Dakota Trade Office.

The International Visitors Program usually hosts guests from around the world at receptions with North Dakota officials, farm and machinery dealership tours, one-on-one meetings with businesses, educational sessions and more.

Drew Combs is the director of the North Dakota Trade Office. Photo taken Aug. 11, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)
Drew Combs is the director of the North Dakota Trade Office. Photo taken Aug. 11, 2020. (Jenny Schlecht / Agweek)

Combs, who is based in Bismarck, joined the Trade Office last year and took over as director in January. He said the issue of not having a traditional International Visitors Program isn’t about “want to” — his office knows there are plenty of customers across the world interested in farm machinery and farm products from North Dakota. Instead, it’s about the realities of travel during the coronavirus pandemic; many would-be visitors are unable to get a visa to come to the U.S.

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The change is a disappointment, Combs said.

“The International Visitors Program, of course, we’re really proud of it, it’s one of our showcase events at the Trade Office,” he said.

The Trade Office is working with the U.S. Commercial Service to use virtual tools to hook potential customers up with North Dakota companies.

“It’s not going to be a substitute for Big Iron, but we’re going to try to put a Band-Aid on it and move ahead,” he said. “There’s nothing like that person going out and meeting that soybean farmer or that machinery dealer, but we’re going to do the best we can.”

The North Dakota Trade Office still plans to have a presence at Big Iron in September and will be in its usual spot on the second floor of the Schollander Pavilion, this year with plenty of masks and hand sanitizer.

“We will still have a presence at Big Iron. If we do happen to have some of those visitors that come, they can certainly come up to our pavilion and we can help arrange those meetings,” Combs said.

An eye on trade deals

Though the pandemic has thrown a curveball at international trade, Combs said there still are opportunities for North Dakota.

He said his office has continued to work with international partners and the U.S. Commercial Service to stay on top of trade agreements and to find ways to make connections to people interested in buying what the state has to offer. That has meant talking to officials in China as the phase one deal with that country went into effect. It also has meant looking for new opportunities in the ever-changing world of trade.

For instance, Combs said there may be an opportunity in a burgeoning deal with the United Kingdom. That country’s exit from the European Union may be an opportunity for North Dakota products “across the board” to sell into the U.K., he said.

What North Dakota has to offer now, in the midst of a pandemic, is more important than ever, he said.

“North Dakotans know food production, and we’re here to help where we can,” he said.