BURLEY — When he was 8, his pig was the Cassia County Fair grand champion. He grew up near Burley and graduated from Declo High School, then received an East Asian studies degree from Harvard before spending years in business, often working internationally.
In other words, Mark Hanzel seems tailor-made for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service. The USDA announced in July that Hanzel will be one of 12 new foreign ag service officers advocating overseas for U.S. farmers. He will be posted in Shanghai, serving as the deputy director of the Agricultural Trade Office at the U.S. Consulate.
“It’s a career representing America,” Hanzel said. “I think it’s a great mix of opportunities. You get to live overseas, but you’re doing so for a very specific purpose.”
The foreign ag service is a trade agency that strives to help farmers by promoting Amerian agricultural interests and building markets.
“We represent American agriculture,” Hanzel said. “We are the eyes, ears and mouthpieces of American agriculture.”
The agency has three main objectives: trade promotion, trade policy and developing underdeveloped countries.
In Shanghai, Hanzel won’t be spending much time — if any — helping China develop. That type of work is typically reserved for developing nations, in hopes of opening up new markets for U.S. producers.
For the most part, Hanzel will work on connecting American suppliers to Chinese buyers. Some of that can be done at massive trade shows, for instance.
Hanzel starts his job while the Trump Administration is in the middle of an escalating tariff war with the world’s largest country.
“Let’s just say we’re in interesting times right now,” Hanzel said.
The tariff war has had massive impacts on U.S.-China trade.
“Just the overall volume is greatly diminished right now in terms of what we’re exporting to China,” Hanzel said. “We went from in the range of $20 billion in ag exports, to down to $9.6 billion from one year to the next. Unless there’s a deal sometime soon, the 2019 numbers could be worse.”
Many farmers have felt the impacts of the tariffs firsthand. The federal government has paid farmers for some losses, but so far most of that money — 83%, according to the Associated Press — has gone to soybean farmers. Idaho farmers, mostly dairymen, have seen some compensation, but some say the money is a pittance compared to how much they’ve lost.
Hanzel won’t have any decision-making power in the trade war, but he will be informing the people working on high-level trade deals, ensuring they have the most accurate picture of trade situations in Shanghai.
“Right now it’s certainly a priority to look for opportunities where they exist, even in the midst of tension in trade between the U.S. and China,” he said.
Hanzel looks forward to getting started in Shanghai.
“It’s a great opportunity and an honor, and I love the way it connects to my roots in the Magic Valley,” Hanzel said. “I’m really excited.”