Guatemalan native builds on career in international trade at DATCP

Jan Shepel
Enrique Gandara, in bright blue DATCP shirt, accompanied a group of Wisconsin Angus breeders to an international Angus forum in Scotland and Ireland. His work, sponsored by U.S. Livestock Genetics Export, Inc., was designed to build ties between state beef breeders and farmers in other countries.

MADISON – For more than ten years, Wisconsin agriculture has benefited from the linguistic, diplomatic and trade expertise of Enrique Gandara, who retired last week from the state’s Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) where he has worked as an International Economic Development specialist.

Gandara first became acquainted with Wisconsin while he was a student at the University of Louisiana. “In order to graduate I needed forage courses and I had to go to another school for them. I remembered a pretty girl I had met who was going to UW-Madison, so that’s where I decided to go.”

Courtesy of that stint in Madison, Gandara, now 65, found his future wife Maria Teresa – a native Wisconsinite who grew up in the Wauwatosa area – and earned his degree in agronomy with a minor in seed production, as well as meeting mentors who have become lifelong friends. After working for nine months at Kaltenberg Seed in Waunakee, he considers Fred and Jack Kaltenberg dear friends who helped him build a foundation in the agronomy business.

Gandara grew up farming in Guatemala where he learned Central American agriculture. But he also learned languages. He is fluent in French, Portuguese, and Italian as well as English and Spanish. He also knows enough to get by in Arabic, Hebrew and German and can speak a little Russian.

His gregarious personality as well as his gift for language has given him the tools to cultivate friends in agriculture all over the world and allowed him to rub shoulders with presidents and Secretaries of Agriculture internationally for many decades. He turned out to be a perfect fit for DATCP’s Division of Agricultural Development and its International Business bureau because he’s been in international trade all his life.

He has forged personal connections that have lasted his whole life. “I have friends all over the place,” he says with a laugh.

Some of his international trade started with purchasing farm equipment in Wisconsin and Louisiana – he sometimes refers to himself as a Cajun because of his education in Louisiana – for farmers in his home country. He tells the story of purchasing a 7700 John Deere combine (along with the headers) and a low-boy trailer (and another trailer for the headers.) He and another driver then drove the two trucks with the farm equipment all the way from Louisiana to Guatemala.

While in Ireland and Scotland for a trade mission with Wisconsin Angus breeders, Enrique Gandara took this selfie with one of the better Angus bulls on a local farm.

“People said ‘that man is crazy,’ ” he recalls with a laugh.

That equipment was for his own farm, which he was helping his father operate. They had decided to go into custom combining and needed their own combine.

Some of the equipment was purchased for his neighbors and for farmers in Honduras and El Salvador. Gandara has bought tractors, balers, combines, shredders and all manner of farm equipment in Wisconsin where he has made connections with various equipment dealers.

“I have been buying farm equipment from Curt Hanson at Mid-State Equipment in Columbus for 37 years,” he told us.

Sometimes the older, smaller farm equipment from here was taken apart and shipped back to Central America in empty containers that had been used to bring bananas to the United States.

Equipment matchmaker

“Sometimes people ask me what I do and I tell them I am a matchmaker. I find things people need and match them up together.”

Sometimes these international matchmaking endeavors are full-service. One story he tells: in Guatemala an entrepreneur wanted to begin making cheese but had to start from scratch. Gandara found a decommissioned cheese factory in Wisconsin, bought the equipment and sent it to Guatemala. But he also took cheesemakers to his homeland to teach the proper methods – and also procured some of the best Jersey cows and East Friesian dairy goats and shipped them to Central America to provide the mixed milk the new cheese entrepreneur wanted for his product.

Gandara has bought the equipment from several cheese factories in Wisconsin to give them a new home in Central America. His matchmaking also extended to buying several soft drink bottling plants and sending that equipment south.

Registered Jerseys from Wisconsin arrive safely in Guatemala.

Through his network of connections he has also found grain bins and other equipment for farmers at auctions and through dealers in Wisconsin. “It has been so much fun, kind of like a dating service,” he said.

Before he built a reputation for matching North American equipment with Central American farmers, he had also put things right on the farm where he grew up. He admits his father made some bad business decisions and the family farm was in trouble soon after Enrique graduated from college. One of the main crops on the farm was cotton but there were bad years.

Cotton was like a “gold rush” in his homeland, he said. Farmers grew it thinking it was going to be the answer to all their problems. But it didn’t always turn out that way. The farm had been home to a cattle operation, but his Dad had discontinued that enterprise.

Healing the farm

It took a little time, but Enrique bought the farm from his father and used his business acumen to re-negotiate and consolidate loans and eventually paid off the farm’s debt. He returned cattle to the farm’s enterprises and grew its land base, purchasing more acreage.

He says he settled the farm with “hard work, honesty” and the ability to talk to people who had disputes with his “Daddy”, who passed away only last year. “He was a good man and had some bad luck.”

Today the farm supports corn, soybeans and sorghum crops. With irrigation the land can support three corn crops per year. He also has irrigation to keep his cattle pastures in top condition.

Since Enrique Gandara took over his family's farm in Guatemala, he has built a herd of Brahma cattle to several hundred cow/calf pairs. During his career promoting international trade at the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, he conducted many trade missions to boost the sale of Wisconsin cattle and genetics.

He re-started his cattle enterprise when he swapped a John Deere baler for 10 pregnant Brahma heifers to start his herd. For four or five years he has had as many as 800 cattle on his farm. Today, the farm has about 300 head of cattle and also includes a 200-acre commercial mango grove. The family farm includes 2,000 acres and another 600-acre parcel that is leased out to a sugar mill.

Along the way Gandara forged business relationships in the Midwest and became a dealer for crop inoculants and crop protection chemicals. He was among the first in Guatemala to have a cell phone.

Guatemalan farmer

He and his wife lived in Guatemala for 21 ½ years as he grew and improved their farming operation, but eventually they grew fearful about the increasing presence of narco-traffickers in their area. The farm is only five miles from the Pacific Ocean. So, they came back to Wisconsin, partly for that reason but also so their two children – at that time aged 15 and 10 – could experience more of their mother’s culture, he said.

After the process of applying for a home loan in Madison, Gandara was offered a job at M&I Bank in the mortgage department. He was hired for his business acumen and language skills to help Spanish-speakers applying for home loans. As his heart was always in agriculture, he also looked to help farmers with loans in that division of the bank. “I helped hundreds of people with small agricultural loans at M&I.”

Then, as so often happens, the bank was bought out and a corporate changeover took place. He and others were no longer interested in working there. A very good friend put him in touch with former Lt. Gov. Barbara Lawton who told him he should interview at DATCP.

That’s how his career representing international trade for Wisconsin began. One of the highlights he mentions was going to the Middle East to help set up a dairy farm with 4,000 pregnant Holstein heifers from Wisconsin. He worked with several state agriculture secretaries and treasures the memories of promoting Wisconsin agriculture on trade missions to Mexico where he introduced then-governor Scott Walker to top officials in Jalisco.

He met with top officials in South American countries to promote Wisconsin agriculture and took state cattle breeders to international beef events in Ireland and Scotland. As part of a Wisconsin trade delegation he went to China with colleague Jennifer Lu.

As a member of the international trade team at Wisconsin's Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection, Enrique Gandara worked with U.S. Livestock Genetics Export, Inc., a non-profit national trade association that brings together a broad base of livestock organizations. Here, he was in Shanghai, China with people from the National Swine Registry, to promote U.S. hog genetics in the wake of China's swine flu epidemic.

He notes that his travel is not paid for by the state but by outside groups like U.S. Livestock Genetics Inc., a non-profit national trade association formed by livestock groups to promote trade.

“It’s not who you are but who you know,” he often remarked during our telephone interview. “Wisconsin is such a vibrant state with so much to offer.”

Medical mission host

In addition to all he’s done in trade, Gandara also has been active helping his Guatemalan neighbors by sponsoring a medical mission to his homeland for 32 years. He has arranged for doctors and dentists to come down to his ranch and stay for 10 days to see his friends and neighbors, many of whom have never seen a doctor.

At his ranch he built simple bungalows that can house the humanitarians during their mission. They may see as many as 800 to 1,000 patients in their time there. This year, he said, because of the coronavirus pandemic, they won’t be able to hold the mission trip, so the money that would have been used for it will be spent on buying food for 200 local families there.

Selecting the first dairy sheep to be imported to Guatemala in Central America.

As a Rotarian, Gandara forged connections with other Rotary International members in Wisconsin and met doctors in the state who were anxious to work on the medical mission. He notes that he doesn’t accept any money on behalf of the project and the Rotary Foundation is responsible for that part of it. But he enjoys hosting and feeding the missionaries when they come to his homeland.

One reason he likes to do that is that he knows his neighbors may not accept help from U.S. doctors and because they know him, they are willing to trust. “It’s another opportunity to make connections.”