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Ag exports: How long the bright spot in trade picture?


In his State of the Union address in January, President Obama listed as one of his administration’s goals the doubling of U.S. exports over five years and a National Export Initiative was created to support the effort.

The intent of the initiative is that by the end of 2014 U.S. export of goods and services would rise from $1.57 trillion to $3.14 trillion, the largest increase ever.

In June, the U.S. trade deficit hit $49.9 billion, the largest since October 2008. In July, China’s trade surplus was $28.7 billion, the highest since January 2009.

In the September Commerce Department report, the trade deficit narrowed slightly, by 5.3 percent, but the deficit for January-September was still a whopping 40 percent higher than the same period in 2009.

The bright spot in an otherwise gloomy trade picture continues to be exports of agricultural products; the USDA’s November Agricultural Trade Outlook projects record high exports for fiscal 2011 — $126.5 billion, up $17.8 billion from 2010. Most of that increase in value is due to “sharply higher unit values.”

At the same time, agricultural imports are projected to increase 8.2 percent to $85.5 billion, also a record.

U.S. net farm income is forecast to rise 31 percent to $81.6 billion, thanks to higher crop prices and increased livestock sales — a sharp contrast to the 28 percent income drop in weather-plagued 2009.

The U.S. has been a net exporter of agricultural products since 1959. But since 1995, the agricultural trade surplus has shrunk by almost one-third. And, although the U.S. is still the world’s top exporter of farm goods, imports are increasing nearly twice as fast as exports. Agricultural imports rose from $32 billion in 1996 to $43 billion in 2003, and some analysts forecast that a continuation of this trend could see the U.S. running an agricultural trade deficit within 10 years.

While U.S. agriculture’s success is highly dependent on its ability to export a large part of its production, surveys indicate growing public disfavor for trade agreements.

In an NBC News/Wall Street Journal poll in September, 69 percent of respondents (a new high) said they believe free trade agreements between the U.S. and other countries cost American jobs; 53 percent believe the agreements have hurt the U.S. economically; and only 17 percent believe the agreements have been benefited the U.S. 

As government-reported unemployment hovers near 10 percent (around 17 percent when counting those who’ve been out of work so long they’re no longer actively seeking jobs), public pressure has mounted for the U.S. to crack down on what critics see as unfair trade/monetary policies and to reexamine this country’s trade agreements.

The National Association of Manufacturers, although supporting the president’s export initiative, has championed negotiating new free trade agreements, and several members of the New and Improved Congress have indicated intent to re-examine NAFTA and other trade pacts, which could have an impact on ag exports.

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