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Published June 16, 2014, 10:22 AM

Work abroad affects each state

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

By: Trent Opstedahl , Forum News Service

RURAL LARIMORE, N.D. — 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 not only crops but a future for himself with a goal of affecting agriculture in his home country.

“In Europe, the GMO (genetically modified) technology is not a lot,” Foldi says. “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 hosts,Chuck and Linnea Griffin, 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 says. “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,” says Assistant Secretary of State Doug Frantz, who oversaw the $10,000 website’s development.

He says 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 farm workers the state has hosted, the state has also benefitted more materially through growing global trade.

The State Department website says 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, confirms those totals and says 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 says. “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 says. 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 says.

One farmer who has seen a connection between the J-1 Visa program and trade is Roger Gussiaas, owner of Healthy Oilseeds in Carrington, N.D. 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 says. “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.”

In 2010, Healthy Oilseeds was named North Dakota Exporter of the Year.

Other benefits

The State Department says it takes up just 1 percent of the federal budget — the department is requesting a $46.2 billion budget in fiscal year 2015 — but its work generates $150 billion in trade nationwide and education exchanges it fosters contribute $22.7 billion to the economy.

The State Department’s work in North Dakota includes issuing more than 26,000 passports to North Dakotans and facilitating 297 overseas adoptions by North Dakotans since 1999.

The department says it facilitated a cooperative program between University of North Dakota’s chemical engineering department and North-West University in South Africa and a partnership between the North Dakota National Guard and the military of Ghana. The guards recently added the militaries of Benin and Togom to countries it works with through the State Partnership Program.

Always learning

Back on the Griffin farm, Foldi is helping the family get ready for another planting season. He’ll be here for about six months, courtesy of the J-1 Visa program at the University of Minnesota called the Minnesota Agricultural Student Trainee program.

According to Jen Schak, a program official, MAST sends about 30 students like Foldi to North Dakota farms each year and about 280 more in other states.

“I like to be here because I can get agricultural experiences. I can improve my English, and I can learn so many new things day by day,” Foldi says.

He says he plans to go to the University of Minnesota next spring to earn a doctorate in agricultural engineering.