Forum brings northern Maine into loop on global trade opportunities

Posted Feb. 13, 2017, at 2:33 p.m.

More than 2,200 Maine companies are selling goods and services in the international marketplace and the state is attracting interest abroad, according to Wade Merritt, vice president of the Maine International Trade Center.

Those Maine companies exported internationally $2.8 billion worth of goods and services last year, Merritt said at a Feb. 9. business forum organized by the Central Aroostook Chamber of Commerce.

The state’s global exports have been growing in recent years, driven in good part by the seafood industry, and there are many reasons to be optimistic about large and small Maine businesses benefiting from global trade, said Merritt.

The trade center, known as the MITC, is a public-private partnership organization created by the state Legislature in 1996 to promote and help expand Maine international exports.

Canada, of course, is Maine’s largest trading partner, buying 40 percent of that $2.8 billion in goods and services, but there also is strong demand around the world, including Asia, Europe and Scandinavia, Merritt said. Maine-made products were exported to a total of 168 countries last year and were associated with 181,000 jobs — about 25 percent of the state’s workforce, Merritt said.

“Since 2009, the depths of the recession, Maine jobs related to trade increased by 26 percent, while overall job growth in the economy was at 0.3 percent in the same time frame,” Merritt added.

“More of the economy got trade-dependent in that timeframe. We didn’t necessarily grow a whole lot of jobs, but the jobs that were here substantially became more dependent on international activities,” he said.

Companies in Aroostook County with international business ties include Tate & Lyle, a United Kingdom-based food ingredient company with a potato starch facility in Houlton, and Porvair, a U.K.-based air filter manufacturer with an operation in Caribou.

There are opportunities in the global market for Maine and Aroostook County across a variety of industries, said Janine Bisaillon-Cary, president of the MITC.

Within U.S. borders, Maine is being seen as “a local food basket for the northeast,” and foreign countries and consumers also are interested in Maine-grown food, Bisaillon-Cary said.

“We’ve had a lot of interest on the direct investment side of our seafood industry,” she said, referring to bumper lobster harvests as well as salmon and shellfish aquaculture operations.

Seafood along with crops such as wild blueberries are drawing international attention particularly from Asia.

“We’ve had a lot of interest in the potato crop and root vegetable crops,” Bisaillon-Cary said.

“That’s another area that there’s so much that can be developed,” she said, referring to the success of Pineland Farms Potato Co. in Mars Hill, which was recently acquired by Bob Evans Foods.

Some County-grown potatoes end up being being exported to Europe as frozen food by Penobscot McCrum in Belfast, while a newer crop is figuring into a new venture in the Saint John Valley. Allagash View Farms has joined a co-op with New Brunswick farmers to grow and sell haskap berries, a nutrient-rich berry in the honeysuckle family that’s hugely popular in Asia. The co-op is looking to build haskap berry juicing and processing plant in the coming years, with an eye toward Asia and a nascent market in North America.

The business forum also explored the issue of recruiting specialized workers from abroad — a major issue for rural health care providers such as The Aroostook Medical Center.

“One of the challenges we face is that we are northern and rural, and there is a chronic and decades-old physician shortage,” said Mary Kay Moreau, TAMC’s manager of physician recruitment.

“Part of that is there are just not enough seats in the United States for medical school students and we do not graduate enough doctors. As our population ages and the baby boomers are entering retirement, we have an ever-deepening need for physician practitioners,” she said.

“We also have a significantly aging physician workforce and a lot of our physicians are approaching retirement age,” Moreau said.

Young doctors are hard to recruit and less interested in very long work hours, she added.

“Physicians in their 60s or 70s were content with the idea that they would be working 60 or 70 hours a week. Today’s newer graduate physicians are content to work part-time, 20 or 30 or a maximum of 45 hours a week,” she said.

Across the U.S. about 25-35 percent of physicians are graduates of foreign medical schools, Moreau said. At TAMC, 27 percent of providers attended non-US medical schools, including both U.S. and non-U.S. born physicians that attended medical school outside of the country.

While immigration laws are highly complex and controversial (and potentially could be overhauled under the new president), physicians have been exempt from the cap on the H1B visa that allows American companies to employ foreign workers in specialty occupations.

Moreau said that physicians from other countries are vital to rural hospitals such as TAMC, and that they are often among the best graduates of their schools. She credited Dr. Arjun Sood, TAMC’s oncology director and an immigrant from India, for helping build TAMC’s array of comprehensive cancer care services over the last seven years.

“Being able to reach out to the world and bring their talent to the United States is a tremendous advantage that we have,” Moreau said.

 

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