The potential for U.S. potatoes in Panama and other Central American countries can’t be unlocked until a stream of trade begins to flow, said Seth Pemsler, who recently returned from a trade mission for the Idaho Potato Commission.

“The key to selling internationally, especially in Latino or Asian countries, is to meet face to face,” said Pemsler, vice president of retail for the commission. “Those cultures don’t like to do business with people they don’t know personally.”

Pemsler and a group that included representatives from two Idaho shippers and members of the Western U.S. Trade Association visited Panama and Colombia in early February. The trip was timed to capitalize on trade agreements signed in recent months between the U.S. and the two countries.

Korea also signed a trade agreement at that time, but Pemsler said Idaho potatoes are already going to that country, so the commission decided to focus on Central America.

“In Panama we found U.S. potatoes on the shelf at retail, which is encouraging because Panama’s gross domestic product is growing at about 10% a year, so business will only get better,” Pemsler said.

Pemsler said the trade delegation spent two days in each country, meeting with six potential customers every day.

“They all thanked us for coming to meet them in person. It really made an impression with them. In the international markets — once you get in — is that they are very loyal customers, once you establish a relationship,” Pemsler said.

“It is crucial to have a Spanish interpreter, but the fact that you take time to travel to their country and meet them in person and shake their hand seems to make a huge difference.”

The delegation on the trade mission included Manny Carvajal, a salesman from Wada Farms, Idaho Falls, Idaho.

Chris Wada, director of marketing, said any trade mission with the commission is a worthwhile trip, and the company didn’t want to miss the opportunity.

“We don’t have a logistics advantage here in Idaho in terms of exports,” Wada said, “but an opportunity in a new market can’t be ignored. So we have to turn it into a value proposition where the grown-in-Idaho potato is billed as a premium product.”

That philosophy is what those on the trade mission stressed, Pemsler said.

Idaho potatoes are becoming known internationally as “the potato to have,” Pemsler said, partly because of their great success in restaurants around the globe where chefs choose Idaho potatoes for bakers.

Pemsler said one difference between many international markets and domestic markets is that retailers use more than one importer. That can create a ripple effect because if an importer sees Idaho potatoes at one store, they want to get in on the deal.

While the Panama meetings appeared productive, with orders actually written on the trip in February, the potential in Colombia will take time to develop, Pemsler said.

“In Colombia they think they don’t need us because they grow their own potatoes,” Pemsler said. “But we know it is important to make first contact because if there is a crop failure or some other problem, they will be looking for potatoes and they will remember we went to meet them.”