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.

Director Sandison (right) pictured with NASDA CEO Ted McKinney (left) at a market during a trade mission to Guatemala.

The pandemic forced us to organize virtual trade missions, which brought about new challenges and opportunities. In Washington we conducted our first “virtual trade mission” in June of 2020. By now, virtual meetings are commonplace, but last summer, it still felt novel to host a virtual event such as this. Since then, our International Marketing Program has conducted more than 25 virtual trade missions and trade shows, many in collaboration with other state departments of agriculture and WUSATA.

Even in-person events rarely result in immediate sales agreements. Such agreements usually take time. What trade missions do best is provide the basis for new business relationships, or an opportunity to maintain existing relationships. Washington food and ag businesses have expressed appreciation that we are providing opportunities to do this virtually until travel restrictions are lifted, and we are pleased to see on-going correspondence between the parties involved.

While we have continued to do what we can to support ag export businesses virtually, we hope that soon there will be a return to in-person trade missions. Trade is built on relationships, and relationships must be developed and maintained in-person to flourish.

The value of robust export markets for our agriculture industry cannot be overstated. It’s good for our farmers and ranchers, the food industry, and our economy as a whole. Knowing this, we ardently work to promote trading relationships that helps ensure the prosperity of agriculture. I hope to see you on a future trade mission.

Director Sandison serves as chair of NASDA’s Marketing and International Trade committee. The committee, made up of secretaries, directors and commissioners of agriculture from across the country, tracks the development of trade agreements, efforts to promote agricultural exports and state programs to market agricultural products domestically and abroad. Director Sandison leads the committee’s efforts to improve U.S. agricultural trade opportunities.

Through the NASDA Foundation, Director Sandison also serves as vice-chair of the Agriculture Trade Education Council, a new non-advocacy organization focused on educating people about the importance of international trade for U.S. farmers and ranchers. In addition, the ATEC is provides objective and factual information to the agricultural industry, decision makers and ultimately the public about the mechanics of trade. This includes the nature and structure of trade agreements, how trade disputes arise, how they are resolved and other related aspects of trade.