By Director Derek Sandison, Washington State Department of Agriculture
Director Sandison also serves as NASDA Marketing and International Trade Committee Chair & The Agriculture Trade Education Council Vice-Chair
State departments of agriculture operate on the front lines of U.S. export promotion – and for good reason. Food, agriculture and forestry exports provide a vital source of income for Americans. Promoting agricultural and food products for export is a primary responsibility of state agriculture departments, in addition to opening new markets and ensuring trade agreements are implemented. In Washington state alone, we ship about a third of our agricultural products to markets outside the U.S., and with our state’s position on the Pacific Rim, it should be no surprise that countries in Asia have made up a large part of our international customer base. Given their proximity, Mexico and Canada are also natural and major customers for our agriculture industry.
But global trade is important to all of U.S. agriculture, including states with a smaller international footprint. Robust trade abroad gives the U.S. agriculture industry markets beyond local consumers. This not only provides more revenue for those operations involved in exporting, but it also helps smaller operations by allowing them to focus on their local or domestic customers. Altogether, National Association of State Departments of Agriculture members facilitate millions of dollars’ worth of agricultural exports in their states, totaling to $155.58 billion nationwide and providing a $2 trillion impact on our economy.
In Washington, we dedicate an entire team to work with the food and agriculture community to develop markets and expand market access. Our International Marketing Program consists of trade specialists based in Washington and contracted trade experts based in key markets who help companies become export ready, clear up red tape for agriculture businesses that are already exporting, organize trade missions and address trade difficulties that may arise. By assisting agriculture and food operations expand their exports, this team generates revenues that ultimately benefits our state’s bottom line, too.
But recent years have been challenging for agriculture, and especially for those commodities that depend on exports. Trade disputes caused some disruptions in the market, and just as the agriculture industry began to adjust, the COVID-19 pandemic struck bringing with it a host of disruptions that continue presently.
One of the many casualties of the pandemic were the in-person trade missions that are such a hallmark of developing export markets. In Washington, our team had to pivot and, like so many others, push the capacities of the virtual meeting. Trade missions are international excursions that allow the U.S. to explore and pursue export opportunities by meeting directly with potential buyers in other countries.
In trade missions I have participated in, we’ve been joined by organized groups of farmers, our Governor’s Office, USDA Foreign Agriculture Service, our State Regional Trade Group (WUSATA), our state’s Department of Commerce and other business organizations. In my four years as agriculture secretary for Washington State, I’ve participated in several trade missions abroad, visiting countries in Asia, Europe, Central America and Mexico.
With famers, state agriculture departments, national governments and businesses all together, we’re able to have conversations about the market, local consumer preferences and how Washington state commodities can meet buyers’ needs.