Agriculture’s Opportunity

Posted Jan. 06, 2011, at 6:20 p.m.

In the midst of all the bad news about the U.S. economy, there is one bright spot: Agricultural exports continue to be greater than imports. It’s a rare segment of the economy in which the U.S. has a trade surplus. This suggests a potential for Maine to broaden a sector of its export business.

Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack recently said on NPR’s “Weekend Edition” that 2010 was “a good year for farmers,” with a 34 percent increase in net farm income. He reported that a $41 billion export surplus in agricultural products is expected when all the numbers are tallied for last year. Each billion dollars of agricultural sales creates between 8,000 and 9,000 jobs, Secretary Vilsack said.

The growth is tied in part to the regard other countries have for food produced in the U.S. Consumers have confidence that it is safe, the result of high U.S. regulatory standards. This week, the president signed into law the Food Safety Modernization Act, which will further ensure the quality of food produced by American farmers. An emerging middle class in China and India will provide expanding markets for American agricultural products. The Department of Agriculture has begun to tailor its export efforts to individual countries, which has helped grow markets.

This observation should provide some direction for Maine. Though Maine does not produce the volumes of food that states such as California, Iowa, Texas and Nebraska do, it can continue to exploit niche markets, such as it already is doing with blueberries. Industrial-size farms are not common in Maine, but this does not mean farmers here can’t produce enough to warrant developing export markets. In fact, the U.S. Department of Agriculture reports, family farms account for about 20 percent of farm sales.

Identifying and cultivating new markets is essential, whether for traditional Maine produce such as blueberries, potatoes and milk, or other foods. If the definition of agriculture is broadened to include seafood such as lobster, “farmed” oysters and mussels and pen-raised fish, then an obvious focus is Asia.

Processing seafood also holds tremendous potential. In St. George, Linda Bean has worked to build plants that prepare seafood for the retail market. Ms. Bean, the granddaughter of L.L. Bean, recently landed a contract with Walmart to provide cooked, frozen lobster claws to its grocery depart-ments. Much more can be achieved for Maine’s seafood industry.

Thinking of agriculture in even broader terms could include pulp and lumber. Again, the key is to develop niche or targeted markets, taking Secretary Vilsack’s cue that different approaches must be used for different export markets.

And then there is an adjunct to agriculture — shipping products grown or raised elsewhere in the U.S. or Canada. It happened in Eastport last year — more than 1,000 pregnant cows were shipped to Turkey.

If managed effectively, a growing agriculture sector could help Maine’s rural economies.

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