Business, Finance & Economics

Exporting North Dakota

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(Photo: Jason Margolis)

The state of North Dakota is doing something right — it has the lowest unemployment rate in the country at 3.5 percent.

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North Dakota is enjoying an oil boom in the western part of the state and also leads the country in the production of 15 agricultural commodities. But the state's economic success also has something to do with its aggressive exporting. North Dakotans have figured out a formula to sell their agricultural equipment to far-flung trading partners, from Angola to Kazakhstan to Romania.

These foreign farmers, from less-traditional American trading partners, have been coming to the Big Iron Farm Show in West Fargo for five years now. On the surface, the show is quintessential home-grown America: corn dogs, baseball caps, and lots and lots of John Deere tractors. But tucked away in the corner of the fairgrounds is a small building with international flags hanging from the rafters. Foreign visitors are provided with food and beverages, access to translators, and a place to relax. It's here in this small "international pavilion" that deals get done.

The locals have a phrase for this hospitality: "North Dakota Nice." Some call it courtesy; others call it smart business. It's the little things that make a foreign visitor feel welcome: airport pick-ups, help booking hotels, and evening activities like a catered dinner at the governor of North Dakota's farm. The foreign farmers are also given a chance to head out into a nearby field, kick the tires and test drive the equipment.

These small touches, along with the state's heavy recruitment of the foreign farmers and equipment sellers in the first place, seem to be working. Farmers from places like Azerbaijan or Ukraine could go to shows much closer to home or in easier-to-reach parts of the United States. But they told me they choose Fargo, in no small part, because they're welcomed.

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