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Herd Instinct

By Hannah Wallace December 31, 2007

Economic development agencies have been preaching it for years: Producing goods and services for other markets ensures higher skills, higher wages, more consistent profits and more continuity. Few businesspeople here have heeded this call.

So all of you anxious about wading into unfamiliar territory, meet Manatee County rancher Renee Strickland. Even though she is deeply rooted in the land—Strickland is the offspring of an old Florida cracker family—she now travels to remote corners of the world as a pioneer in the shift from real estate to exports. Since her Manatee County title search job has slowed to a snail’s pace, she and her husband, Jim, have been dedicating most of their time and energy to converting the family ranch, among the larger ones in this area, into an export business.

It comes at an opportune moment. U.S. cattle exports were decimated by the appearance of mad cow disease on our shores in 2003, but now the U.S. government is negotiating veterinary protocols with dozens of governments to reopen lost markets.

While most U.S. cattle exporters have set their eyes on Canada and Mexico, however, Strickland Ranch’s business dealings span the globe, from Cuba to Costa Rica, Moscow to Macedonia.

Renee is hands-on. She doesn’t shy away from getting behind the wheel of a pickup-trailer to drive a South American customer to Ohio to pick goats and sheep—two lambs were born during that trip—and back to a quarantine facility in north Florida. She wants to buy a few livestock containers so she has more control over shipping.

But exporting live animals is one of the most complex, red-tape-hampered and unpredictable businesses you can get into. Cattle exports come with reams of paperwork, cost-prohibitive veterinary inspections, cyclical disruptions caused by diseases and the headache of shipping living beings across the globe (which is not made easier if you are, like Renee, on a first-name basis with your animals). “Believe me, everything that can go wrong goes wrong,” she says.

Ultimately, Renee views the Caribbean as her main market, and the first export market she and her husband tackled was Cuba, with all of its embargo headaches.

Their biggest success so far has been in English-speaking Guyana, where they sold 100 cows to a 10,000-acre model ranch supported by the government, with another 100 cows in the pipeline. That sale, the first ever of U.S. cattle to the small Caribbean nation, “fell into our lap,” Renee says, after the Guyanese rancher called the Florida Cattlemen’s Association, of which Jim is a longtime officer.

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More ethanol news: Gate Petroleum Co. has announced plans to build a $90 million biofuel terminal at the Port of Jacksonville and is scrapping plans to build and operate ethanol refineries in Florida.

It’s apparently beginning to sink in on Florida businesses: The real deal is not in inefficient, government-subsidized refining of Midwest corn or, worse, Florida mulch into fuel (as touted by our current governor), but in the massive import of sugarcane-based ethanol from Latin America and the Caribbean as pushed by former Governor Jeb Bush.

Jeb helped craft the Brazil-U.S. Ethanol Agreement (one of the few Latin American policy successes his older brother has had), and has long advocated the United States drop its import taxes—57 cents a gallon—on ethanol. The agreement encourages Brazilian ethanol producers—the most advanced worldwide—to promote sugarcane cultivation in places such as Mexico, Central America and the Dominican Republic (which already have free trade agreements with us), refine the sweet stuff into ethanol there and export it to the United States.

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Here’s another one from the “I didn’t know they were here” department. Nat Colletta is a retired World Bank executive who lives with his wife, also a former World Bank exec, and daughter in University Park.

Conversations at their dinner parties usually are about topics such as what daily life is like for the 1.4 million people in Gaza, what Ugandan mass murderers and rapists do in retirement, and what it’s like to travel with the leader of an outlawed guerrilla group through a tsunami-devastated province in Indonesia.

When he’s not teaching at New College, Colletta usually can be found jetting to places where the smoke has barely settled from shooting, burning and looting: Uganda, Mindanao, Aceh, Medellín, Cambodia, Nepal or Darfur.

Since retiring, Colletta has become a kind of “Peacemaker of Fortune.” He now works as a freelance consultant, using his extensive post-conflict knowledge and skill to advise Sweden’s foreign ministry on how to establish longer-term peacemaking programs.

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If you want to deal with China, here’s a must-attend event in Tampa: On Jan. 23-24, the Panama Canal Authority administrator and top executives of shipping lines, including Zim, CMA-CGM and Maersk, are scheduled to attend a workshop hosted by the Tampa Port Authority on the widening of the Panama Canal. Up for discussion will be the impact of the project on shipping routes, infrastructure needs at local ports and financing opportunities.

Johannes Werner is a Sarasota-based business journalist who has worked in Europe, Mexico, the Caribbean and the United States. He is the editor of Cuba Trade & Investment News and hosts the Florida-Caribe radio show on WSLR 96.5 FM. His column, “Outside In,” won the Florida Magazine Association’s first-place Charlie Award for best column in a trade/technical magazine in 2007.

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