(Aug. 15, 1:55 p.m.) SAN PEDRO SULA, Honduras — Ten years after Hurricane Mitch ripped through Honduras and nearly destroyed the agriculture infrastructure, the country and its exporters have found solid footing.

It may be hard to overestimate the effect Hurricane Mitch had on Honduras and the rest of Central America in the fall of 1998. At the time, authorities said the storm caused nearly $4 billion in total damages and destroyed 70% of the country’s crops, cutting banana volume by 60%. The hurricane left about one-fifth of the country’s population homeless.

Ten years later, Honduras still has high underemployment and unemployment — both categories together account for 37% of the nation’s potential workforce — but agribusiness leaders in Honduras point to several success stories in their bid to boost global investment and trade.

U.S. imports of Honduras agricultural products (excluding fish) totaled $367 million, up from $290 million in 2006 and $221 million in 2003. In 2007, bananas accounted for $136 million of the total, with coffee close to $100 million and melons at more than $20 million.

Honduras seeks to spur investment and development by stressing its ample and underutilized labor force, free trade agreements with much of the Americas, a pending trade deal with the European Union, its deep sea port at Puerto Cortes, climatic advantages and favorable treatment of export companies.

Writers from six U.S. agricultural publications, including The Packer, visited Honduras from Aug 4-8, invited by the Foundation for Investment and Export Development, a private nonprofit organization created in 1984 to promote investment in Honduras.

The visit included tours of Asian vegetable, mango and melon exporting companies, a cocoa processing facility, a dairy, the dominant beer marketers in Honduras, a banana puree plant, a crocodile farm and aquaculture operations for shrimp and tilapia.

In the fresh produce category, Honduras is a substantial exporter of bananas, melons and Asian vegetables to the U.S. Imports of Honduran fresh fruits and vegetables in 2007 tallied 1.5 billion pounds, or about three times the shipments to the U.S. in 1999.

Bananas are the leading Honduran fresh produce export to the U.S, followed by cantaloupes, other melons, pineapples, cucumbers and eggplant. The Foundation for Investment and Export Development reports Honduras is the leading global supplier of Asian vegetables and to the U.S and ranks second among all international suppliers of eggplant to the U.S.

In a presentation to the visiting journalists Aug. 4 in San Pedro Sula, Antonio Young Torres, executive vice president of the Foundation for Investment and Exports of Honduras, stressed the country’s 28 years of political stability, its strategic location to both Atlantic and Pacific oceans, legal guarantees to investors and an attractive package of fiscal incentives.

Torres said the country offers 100% foreign ownership opportunities, the region’s most efficient seaport, improving inland infrastructure and 100% tax exemption for export-focused industries. Wage rates near $1 per hour for exporting industries are also emphasized.

Torres said the government of Honduras has also set up arrangements with agricultural guest worker programs in Canada and the U.S. to provide opportunities to its people.

The agribusiness tour highlighted operations with extensive experience with U.S. food safety and quality demands.

Omar Hernandez, president of Inversiones Mejia, was representative of a top-tier fresh produce executive. The company, founded in 1996, exports about 3,200 containers of Asian vegetables to the U.S. annually and has 9,000 employees, Hernandez said.

Located in the Comayangua Valley, the company has been certified by Global-GAP.

Inversiones Mejia has an internal food safety department that conducts continuous review of food safety and food security practices, Hernandez said. The firm undertakes extensive testing for a variety of pathogens every 30 days. Last year, the company was accepted into the U.S. Customs Trade Partnership Against terrorism, which certified the firm is safeguarding shipments to the U.S through security measures and expedites handling at U.S. ports.

Hernandez said the firm has a system of tracking produce by noting packing dates and farm of origin on each carton.

Hernandez, whose company was recognized by the Honduran government in 2006 as Exporter of the Year for 10 straight years of increasing fresh produce exports, said the biggest challenge for the Honduras exporters in the next five years to be more efficient.

“The costs are going up, and the market prices are not rising in the same proportion that real costs are rising,” he said.

Still, he sees potential in the tough economic environment.

One of the ways that he believes the company will become more efficient is through its own biofuel facility and further investments in growing and packing technologies.

Expansion of product lines is another. Hernandez started with nine commodities about 10 years ago and now offers 33 commodities and is transitioning some production to organic.

The firm grows 100% of its okra crops, while 20% of Asian vegetables come from his own farm and 80% come from smaller producers. About half of the cucumbers are grown by their farm, he said. The company’s outside growers are provided with financing and monitored for their growing practices, Hernandez said.