Howard Dahl is making another trip to the former Soviet Union this month to pitch his North Dakota-made farm machinery - his 50th such sojourn since the country's collapse in 1991.
The daylong flights from Fargo, the language, political and economic barriers have all been worth it, said Dahl, president of Amity Technology LLC, billed as the world's largest manufacturer of sugar beet harvesting equipment.
"It's the best decision we've ever made," he said from his factory in Fargo.
Since the breakup of the Soviet Union, Dahl's business has had more than $150 million in sales to Kazakhstan, Russia, Ukraine and Azerbaijan, including $50 million in the last two years, he said.
The appetite for American farm machinery products is on the rise.
Russia imported $281 million in American farm machinery products through June 2007, a 112 percent increase from the previous year, according to the Association of Equipment Manufacturers, a West Allis, Wis.-based machinery trade group. Ukraine had $142 million in American-made machinery purchases through the first half of 2007, a 113 percent increase over the previous year, the group said.
The North Dakota Trade Office said state farm machinery exports to Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine have risen from $1.2 million in 2001 to $81 million in 2006. Sales for the first nine months of 2007 totaled $98.9 million, the trade office said.
"In the last four years, we've grown 30 percent a year, due largely to the market there," Dahl said, adding that half the 270 jobs at his three North Dakota factories depend on the sales to the former Soviet Union states.
Nickolay Ryabov, an attorney and international business specialist for Amity, said U.S.-made agricultural equipment has made farming much more efficient in his native Russia. American-made farm machinery is considered by eastern European farmers the best engineered and most reliable in the world, he said.
"Farmers don't care about politics," said Ryabov, 27. "They want the same thing as here. They like the product."
Amity's cavernous factory, not far from downtown Fargo, has both skilled workers and robotic tools that slice through steel with such precision that no further machining is necessary.
"We have a mixture of very high-tech, expensive machines and handcrafted assembly," Dahl said. About 175 beet harvesting machines have been produced in Fargo in each of the past five years, he said.
Dahl, 58, was among the first U.S. businessmen to test the market after the Soviet downfall. His goals were to bolster international relations, make money for his company and help farmers, one big red beet harvesting machine at a time.
Others have since joined in.
John Miller, president of Miller-St. Nazianz Inc., which builds self-propelled sprayers, said his company began selling machinery in eastern Europe a little more than a year ago.
The St. Nazianz, Wis.-based company has sold about 20 of the $150,000 sprayers in former Soviet states, and has orders for about a dozen more so far this year, he said. The initial sales came at a time when sales where slumping domestically, said Miller, whose company has about 170 workers.
"It's helped jobs, no question about it," he said.
Dahl and his brother, Brian, grew up in Gwinner, near North Dakota's prime sugar beet growing areas. In 1977, they started Concord Inc., which made pneumatic seeding equipment and pioneered the simultaneous application of anhydrous ammonia fertilizer as part of the planting process. The company was later sold to Case Corp., but the Dahls retained the rights to build sugar beet harvesting equipment.
Dahl said he and his brother initially started Concord to build small, inexpensive tractors for use in poverty-stricken countries. After five such tractors were built, the idea flopped.
"We determined it was a Don Quixote-type task," he said.
But Dahl said shipping his North Dakota-made farm machinery to former Soviet states is helping fulfill his vision of aiding farmers and the hungry.
"We're taking our agricultural know-how and handing it right over to them," said said Lt. Gov. Jack Dalrymple, who has taken part in trade missions with Kazakhstan, Russia and Ukraine. "I look at it as an investment - and hope that it will make more proud and efficient producers and a more stable democratic society."
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