CARTAGENA, Colombia — Having a global presence in more than 50 countries requires a nimble staff to service each market.

To share that experience and demonstrate the power of a strong global network, the U.S. Grains Council’s (USGC’s) 16th International Marketing Conference and 59th Annual Membership Meeting in Cartagena, Colombia kicked off on Feb. 11 with a town hall meeting including the Council’s nine international directors.

“It is critical we have these individuals and their respective staff members in the country to help address their country-specific issues to keep markets around the world open for U.S. grains,” said Council Chairman Jim Stitzlein in opening up the panel, moderated by Council President and CEO Tom Sleight. “The issues they deal with are diverse and complex, but without them on the ground, we would have a much bigger challenge being successful for the commodities we represent at home.”

More than 330 attendees have gathered in Cartagena, an important port city in Colombia, which is the fourth largest market for U.S. corn and the 10th largest market for U.S. ethanol. A free trade agreement partner with the United States, grains in all forms (GIAF) purchases were up in Colombia by 11.9 percent year-over-year to 6.34 million metric tons (250 million bushels) in 2017/2018 – more than a ten-fold increase since the U.S.-Colombia Free Trade Agreement went into effect in 2012.

According to the town hall participants, navigating the global trade landscape while maintaining and strengthening relationships with key partners requires different expertise in different markets and a keen insight into each area in which the Council maintains a presence.

For instance, ethanol became a recurring theme where the U.S. has had successes in such countries and regions as South Korea, Mexico, North Asia, Southeast Asia and China. But the directors did acknowledge trade policy trials including withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, trade challenges with China and anti-dumping and countervailing duties cases in South America that add to the work they do on behalf of corn, sorghum, barley, distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) and ethanol.

The session included both audience questions and questions sent in via USGC social media channels. The conversation covered topics including phytosanitary issues, U.S. corn quality, market impacts resulting from the U.S. federal government shutdown and more.

“Our global network of staff in these regions is key to our success,” said Sleight. “In today’s rapidly changing trade environment, our staff includes grain traders, ethanol specialists and nutritionists who address our increasingly sophisticated world markets so we can continue to find homes for U.S. coarse grains, value-added products and ethanol.”

The rest of the afternoon was punctuated by Advisory Team (A-Team) meetings at which Council members helped identify opportunities, set priorities and chart the course for the organization’s overseas operations and its new Unified Export Strategy (UES), a proposal to USDA for the new priorities in the coming marketing year.

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