drew combs

North Dakota Trade Office's Executive Director Drew Combs is among state employees working remotely from home during the coronavirus outbreak.

North Dakota’s trade office has taken calls from Chinese firms seeking to place large mega-orders in the wake of the phase I China trade deal, but those deals are being stymied by continued shipping bottlenecks.

North Dakota Trade Office’s Executive Director Drew Combs said his office has taken several calls from Chinese buyers in recent weeks. While those conversations are not necessarily dying, they are being significantly hampered by a shipping bottleneck to Asian ports.

Seven of the worlds largest ports are in China, which has not had workers to offload cargo since an outbreak of novel coronavirus in that country. The Chinese government has also had many restrictions on shipping lately, which has kept some ships waiting for extended periods, raising concerns of spoilage for some food products.

“If we do have someone who wants to buy, we cannot send it right now, because there are just no more containers available. And if we get a container, then there is no ship, and if we put it on a ship, when it does get there it has to wait for a while because there’s no one to unload it or the port is backed up,” Combs said. “It’s been very problematic.”

Things are loosening up only a little bit now that China has seemingly reached the top of the coronavirus infection curve. The bottleneck will take time to resolve, Combs said.

“It’s such a big bottleneck,” Combs said. “It isn’t going to resolve itself overnight.”

Meanwhile, Combs expects similar shipping problems and delays are about to unfold in Europe, which is now experiencing some of the same issues China had with coronavirus. COVID-19 infections have been rapidly escalating there, and governments have been issuing various quarantine orders and limiting travel and public interaction.

“We just have a complete slowdown of shipping,” Combs said. “And this is not just for agriculture. It includes oil, too.”

The recent worldwide outbreak of novel coronavirus has also hampered most trade missions.

“Right now, I should be in Thailand at a soybean conference,” Combs said. “That is where a lot of our businesses and folks have been making deals for next year, but that is not going to happen. On the way back, I was going to stop off in Japan to work on some things for the upcoming Japanese mission. That may or may not happen.”

Many other such appointments and meetings are being cancelled right and left, Combs said, while he is meanwhile working remotely from home, as per Gov. Doug Burgum’s recent executive order closing public facilities to all but essential workers and business.

“We have customers that want products who cannot buy right now or get out and do the work, and there are the sellers — of course farmers are going to harvest their crops — but they gotta have customers for their products,” Combs said.

Figuring out solutions is vital, Combs added.

“Food is the backbone of society,” he said. “If we cannot feed people, we are in trouble. We have many countries that are not self-sufficient when it comes to food production. They are relying on other countries to get the basics, which food is a basic human need.”

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