Lithuania plays big part in this year's Agrobalt

  • 2000-05-18
  • By Darius James Ross
VILNIUS - Last week food and agribusiness companies from 31 mainly European countries converged on the LitExpo convention center for the annual four-day AgroBalt trade show. Of the 680 exhibitors, 260 were from Lithuania - evidence of Lithuania's continuing reliance on agriculture and related businesses as a keystone of its economy. Indeed, in 1999 roughly 350,000 people, or 21.5 percent of the country's work force, were involved in some aspect of food production or farming.

The big news item this year was the announcement of the European Union's five-year Special Accession Program for Agriculture and Rural Development (SAPARD). The EU will contribute 29,829,000 euros annually (about 120 million litas, or $30 million) in cooperation with private investors and the Lithuanian government, bringing the total budget to 549,206,000 euros (2.2 billion litas) over the term of the project.

Unlike with other former EU accession countries such as Spain and Norway, the aim is to bring Lithuania up to EU standards prior to accession rather than grant a five-year transition period afterward. Private consulting companies such as the Vilnius Consulting Group were already advertising their services to potential applicants wishing to prepare winning proposals. Projects emphasizing the adoption of environmentally sensitive, up-to-date technologies will be given precedence.

The international trade agency attached to Lithuania's Ministry of Agriculture was heavily promoting its latest brainchild: an English language online database of the country's food businesses. The Web site is everything it purports to be: fast, easy-to-use and has a powerful search engine. (See below.)

Lithuanian companies interested in developing new export markets and partnerships have the opportunity to submit photos, detailed written information and even video clips at no cost. They can edit their own pages remotely as new information becomes available.

"The site has only been up for a couple of months but the response has been very good, very quickly," said Andrius Stanaitis, a marketing researcher with the agency. "We already have plans to expand into online auctions for products and equipment and are also close to an agreement with our Latvian colleagues to make it available for Latvian companies as well. Ideally, we'd like to see it encompass all three Baltic countries," he said.

Numerous foreign trade missions were also in attendance. "This year was the most 'international' show of any we've seen yet," said Sabine Molina of Germany's IFW Expo, the company charged with attracting foreign exhibitors. "We even had a delegation from India here looking for new tea and spice markets," she said.

Overall attendance at AgroBalt 2000 was 44,900 people over four days - down 10 percent over last year.

"Our emphasis this year was providing exhibitors with better qualified leads and potential partners. They let us know that this is more important to them than promoting their products to the general public by giving away free samples," she said.

Its director of international relations, August P. Pust, represented the State of Ohio.

"There are many similarities between Ohio State and Lithuania. Agriculture is an important economic sector for both. Also, the state has been a key destination for Lithuanian emigres over many years so there is a historical link. We are the only State in the Union to fly the Lithuanian flag in front of the state capitol on Feb. 16, Lithuania's Independence Day," he said.

The show exceeded Pust's expectations. "I wasn't quite sure how I would spend my time following the opening ceremonies. But I've had continuous productive meetings the whole time. I've realized that it's just more practical for Lithuania to deal with a state like Ohio than navigate the huge federal bureaucracy of the United States government. I've already arranged for a visit by Lithuanian agriculture officials to Ohio this summer," Pust said.

The mammoth American Soybean Association was also looking for interested partners.

"Soya meal is the only effective fodder for large-scale poultry operations. Lithuania imports 100,000 tons a year, as it is too far north to grow its own crops. The beans are very photo sensitive and the long summer days and short growing season prevent their cultivation," said Thomas Brennan, the industry group's Austrian-based representative.

"Prospects for Lithuanian agriculture are good over the long term but limited over the next two to four years. Lithuania was traditionally a major food exporter to Russia but foreign aid programs in place there are hindering this process. Exports to the EU are also still limited due to the difference in standards but that should change when the country accedes," he said.