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Farmers’ impact reaches far beyond Buckeye state

Looking out at the Panama Canal, Tiffany Ricketts was in awe of the sight before her. Mega-sized cargo ships carrying thousands of shipping containers were passing through the canal at the rate of about 40 per day. Equally mesmerizing was the thought that grain from Ohio or even her family farm in Mercer and Van Wert counties could be passing through. After all, one of every three rows of the state’s corn or soybeans are exported every year.

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Tiffany Ricketts in Boquete, Panama.

“It made me think of the times I’m in the tractor or Dad in the combine harvesting and that our own grain could be going through here,” said Ricketts, who is studying agriculture at Wright State University, Lake Campus. Ricketts, one of Ohio Farm Bureau’s Young Agricultural Professionals, joined other university students on an agricultural tour of Panama last spring where they visited coffee, horse, orchid and other farms.

“(The trip) gave me a better idea of how things are grown in other parts of the world and how much manual labor can go into our food. It made me want to learn more about agriculture in other countries as well as my own,” the sophomore said.

Every year, Ohio farmers travel to other countries either on their own, with universities or with trade and commodity groups to learn more about agriculture. Some go on the trips to learn new or innovative ways to improve and grow their own operations while others travel abroad to learn about international trade or crops not typically grown in the United States.

For state board member Wade Smith from Lucas County, his first trip to Belgium eight years ago with the Maumee Growers Association was life changing.

“When I returned from my first visit, I told my wife, ‘It looks like we’re going into the greenhouse business.’ She looked at me cross eyed and thought I was nuts so I brought her on the second trip to Belgium (with the University of Toledo) so she could see the technology herself,” said Smith who at the time was looking for a career change that married the family’s former tomato business with his manufacturing background. He found the perfect fit when he visited the advanced-technology tomato greenhouses in Belgium.

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A red snapper farm in the Pacific Ocean uses U.S. soybeans for feed.

“When I visited six years ago, Belgium was at least 10 years ahead of the technology available in the United States. I wouldn’t be where I am today if I hadn’t taken those trips to Belgium,” said Smith, whose Whitehouse Specialty Crops farm now grows 100 tons of tomatoes year-round.

Guernsey County Farm Bureau member Kathi Albertson realized the trade potential for southeastern Ohio when she visited Cuba last year. She and her son went with the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba to learn more about the agricultural and manufacturing needs of the island nation. Farm Bureau supports federal legislation that would allow U.S. farmers and businesses to compete in Cuba’s import market (see sidebar).

“It’s like everything stopped in the 1950s. They have a large infrastructure need but don’t have the timber, but we do in southeastern Ohio—it’s a huge industry here,” said Albertson whose family had a Christmas tree farm until recently. “We learned from the (nation’s) director of packaging that another big need is paper, which southeastern Ohio could also provide. If we increase our market by 10 percent selling to Cuba, which is only 90 miles away (from the U.S. mainland), it could really help support our agricultural community.”

Darke County Farm Bureau member Greg McGlinch visited a red snapper fish farm in Costa Rica last year and saw how U.S. soybeans are used to feed the fish.

“It’s nice to see how the soybeans and corn grown in the U.S. can be used down there to help them be sustainable and protect their environment and use it for a high value crop,” said McGlinch who also went on the Wright State University trip to Panama as the school’s agriculture program coordinator. “When I go out and harvest soybeans, I have a better understanding of why it’s so important to keep grain clean and focus on the quality to preserve and grow our market share.”

While John Grimes has never traveled abroad, he has hosted several farmers from South America and Israel over the years on his predominantly Angus beef farm near Hillsboro. Since 2011 he has been on the Ohio-Israel Agriculture and Rural Development Initiative committee, which helps improve agricultural trade between the two countries. Last year his Maplecrest Farms and another Ohio cattle farm started exporting cow embryos to Israel to help the country create a marketable brand of beef and develop a herd that can better handle the heat and predators.

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Producers from South America visiting Maplecrest Farms in Hillsboro.

“The Israeli visitors (to the farm) were more into self sufficiency, and the South American farmers were more interested in analyzing animals and production traits because they have an established industry,” said Grimes, a Highland County Farm Bureau member.

Nathan Brown’s trip to China and Vietnam in 2015 was inspiring for the Highland County grain farmer.

“It opened my eyes to what I do on my farm affects so many people around the world and made me want to be a better producer,” he said. “Over there they want that connection of where their food comes from and that’s really no different than what’s going on in our country.”

Working for You: Major trade opportunity exists with Cuba, U.S.

With Cuba currently importing about 80 percent of its food and poised to ramp up its infrastructure, the potential export market for Ohio farmers and businesses is huge. But until the United States lifts restrictions against the island nation, American businesses will continue to be unable to compete for Cuba’s import market.

“It’s time to change the relationship with the trade and travel ban … Every company has a right to evaluate the market. If you’re a provider of cell phone service or technology or food or whatever, you should have the right to evaluate that market like you do everywhere else in the world,” said Addie Bryant of Engage Cuba, a coalition of private companies and organizations, including Farm Bureau, working to end the travel and trade embargo on Cuba.

Bryant was one of the guests on a recent Town Hall Ohio show that examined what the market potential is for Ohio businesses if the relationship between the United States and Cuba is strengthened and restrictions lifted.

Cuba has set a goal of receiving 24 percent of its energy from alternative sources such as solar, wind and biogas by 2030, creating another huge opportunity for U.S. businesses. Farm Bureau will continue to work to open up new markets for American farmers and businesses, said Brandon Kern, Ohio Farm Bureau’s senior director for policy outreach.

“Our grassroots organization through our policy development has recognized the importance of promoting trade across the board and Cuba is no exception,” Kern said.

Featured image: Soybean meal at the Dos Pinos feed facility.

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Amy Graves 

Amy Graves is a freelance writer from Franklin County.