WEST FARGO, N.D. - The Big Iron International Visitors Program received more applications than ever from international buyers who wanted to visit the annual farm show here. But because of visa denials from the U.S. State Department, only about 50 participants ended up making it to the show, said Simon Wilson, executive director of the North Dakota Trade Office.

The program, organized by the North Dakota Trade Office in cooperation with the U.S. Commercial Service, brings potential international buyers to West Fargo for the annual Big Iron Farm Show, which began Tuesday, Sept. 11, and runs through Thursday, Sept. 13. More than 900 visitors have come from more than 40 countries since the program began in 2007, including more than 75 visitors from 15 countries in 2017.

Wilson said the program introduces international buyers to Big Iron, as well as the state's manufacturing, businesses and culture. Some years, more than 100 people have attended. This year, far more interested participants were either denied a visa or didn't even get a chance to be interviewed to receive one.

Fewer people coming to Big Iron means fewer potential buyers of North Dakota products.

"We're really kind of challenged with it," Wilson said. "For us, this is normally a buyers' program. So people who sign up and come to us ... predominantly are interested in buying something or making an agreement with a North Dakota company." If interested people don't get a visa, "that means they can't come and they can't meet and they can't buy from here. So then we look at that as an opportunity lost."

Even with the numbers down, Wilson expects the program to continue helping North Dakota companies build relationships with international buyers. Tom Shorma, president and CEO of WCCO Belting of Wahpeton, said that's what he hoped would happen when he suggested the program years ago.

Shorma explained he was involved in a trade mission to Kazakhstan, the Ukraine and Russia in the early 2000s. At the time, he expressed his opinion that such mission trips were "terrible." Instead of running around the world looking for customers, he felt the better approach would be to bring potential buyers to North Dakota.

The Big Iron Farm Show proved to be an ideal opportunity for buyers to meet with a variety of businesses and learn what North Dakota companies have to offer. Shorma said several other farm shows have similar international programs. What makes the Big Iron program unique, he said, is that it targets buyers of specific products.

Shorma's company is an example of the importance of international trade to North Dakota. Seventeen years ago, WCCO Belting sold into two countries. Today, it sells into 24 countries, and as much as 60 percent of the company's revenue comes from outside the U.S. That also has helped take it from a 30-person operation to one that employs more than 270 people in two locations.

WCCO Belting has been somewhat uniquely impacted by the ongoing trade difficulties. The fabric used on 100 percent of the company's belts comes from outside the U.S., because there is no longer a domestic source of the product. The suppliers the company has found are in India and China and is on the list to have new tariffs added on soon.

Because much of the products made from the fabric are, in turn, exported, Shorma said they can get much of the money back as part of the Duty Drawback program. However, they will not be able to use that program for sales into Canada or Mexico because of a provision in the North American Free Trade Agreement, and it also does not help with products sold domestically. That puts the company at a disadvantage in comparison to competitors in other countries.

The continuing trade problems make forging ahead with building relationships and finding new markets for North Dakota companies all the more important, Wilson said.

The International Visitors program has brought in people from more than 15 countries this year. Many are interested in traditional machinery products, and some are looking for North Dakota commodities including sunflowers, soybeans and pulse crops such as peas and lentils. Some African delegates are particularly interested in uses of drones in agriculture.

"There's a lot of interest especially from some of these emerging countries as they grow and they mature a little bit more, they're really interested in some of the technology that we've been either using or been developing," Wilson said.

Finding ways to build such emerging markets is a way to continue to grow and build trade.

"We're going to try to take the glass half full and say 'how do we go after this differently?'" Wilson said.