Feeding the world: Wisconsin ag exports on the rise

Most Wisconsin farmers smiled broadly at the end of 2014. Among the reasons: mostly good weather in mid-to-late summer resulting in high yields. However, the outlook for 2015 is a mixed bag.

Early data released by the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection (DATCP) shows that consumers around the world continue to buy more Wisconsin foods and agricultural products. Wisconsin farms and agribusinesses exported nearly $2.8 billion worth of agricultural products to 138 countries in the first nine months of 2014, a 17 percent increase over the same period in 2013.

According to the DATCP, Wisconsin held its position as the No. 12 state for agricultural exports. The value of the state’s top five agricultural products increased, as did the value of sales to each of Wisconsin’s top five agricultural export markets, compared to the first three quarters of 2013.

“Wisconsin’s agricultural sector continues to respond to worldwide demand for safe, high-quality food and products,” explains DATCP secretary Ben Brancel. “When these companies move into new markets, they strengthen their businesses, strengthen Wisconsin’s economy and help feed the world.”

Agriculture exports on the rise
Exports of dairy products, including dairy derivatives such as lactose and casein, are valued at $392 million, a 19 percent increase compared with the first three quarters of 2013. Wisconsin ranks third among the states in the export of these products.

Brancel says that part of the growth in dairy exports can be attributed to $88.7 million in exports to Mexico, a 29 percent increase, and $55.3 million in exports to China, a 77 percent increase, compared to the same time last year. In Mexico, the products showing the most growth are milk concentrate, whey protein, cheese, butter, oils and buttermilk. China has been an active purchaser of whey, sweet concentrated milk, cream, cheese and curd, as demonstrated by DATCP figures.

Wisconsin ranks first among all states exporting bovine genetics, whey, ginseng, processed sweet corn, mink fur skins and processed cranberries. The Cheese State ranks second in cheese exports, helping make the U.S. the fastest-growing international cheese exporter since 2009, according to Daniel Workman of World’s Top Exports (WTEx), a website that tracks commodities worldwide.

“We are pleased to see this growth, but there are still plenty of opportunities for Wisconsin companies to export their products to other countries,” Brancel says, citing the hard work by members of DATCP’s International Trade Team. The group provides technical assistance and resources to both new and expanding Wisconsin farms and agribusinesses.

Mixed forecast for 2015
In 2015, the costs for growing alfalfa, corn, soybeans and wheat in Wisconsin are predicted to be mixed, according to Ken Barnett, UW-Extension educator emeritus. Crop prices are forecasted to be lower, he says, with slightly higher fertilizer prices and pesticide prices. Fuel prices should be lower, Barnett explains, with seed prices expected to be stable to lower.

Wisconsin’s dairy and grain farmers, however, may not see an uptick in 2015, warns Stephen Freese, chief administrative officer for the WFBF. “Prices paid for corn and soybeans already fell this year, after hitting record highs,” he says in an agricultural overview for the Wisconsin Bankers Association’ annual economic report released early in January. He goes on to say that a downturn in dairy prices and profits is nearly certain in 2015.

Even so, Freese projects Wisconsin farmers will be able to handle a drop in earnings in 2015 because several good years have let them pay off debts and stash savings. “Most farmers’ financial bottom lines are strong,” he asserts.

“Farmers enjoyed exceptional weather conditions (in the 2014) growing season,” says risk management specialist Joe Camp of AgriVisor. The firm provides marketing, research and pricing strategies for ag-related businesses. “It was almost as if market analysts were competing with one another to report the highest crop yield estimates, with each week marked by loftier forecasts,” he adds.

Everyone is part of the “food movement”
“We are all part of the food movement,” asserts Beaver Dam corn grower Nancy Kavazanjian, chair of the U.S. Farmers and Ranchers Alliance board of directors. In a guest column in this January’s “Rural Route,” the WFBF’s membership magazine, she writes that the state’s farmers, ranchers and other industry partners have a lot in common with the burgeoning food movement.

“We may have different ideas on how to achieve these goals. That’s okay,” Kavazanjian says. “We need big and small farms, conventional and organic, and rural and urban farmers at the table working together.”

For 2015 and beyond, Kavazanjian sees the Wisconsin farm community moving forward “in the quest for ever healthier, more affordable, increasingly efficiently raised food for all.”

Arlington Agricultural Research Station in Arlington, WI.

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