The continued growth of agricultural exports has expanded market opportunities for U.S. farmers and ranchers.  Former Secretary of Agriculture and U.S. Trade Representative Clayton Yeutter recently commented that in 1970 when he came to Washington, DC export sales of $10 billion per year was considered a success story.  USDA projects exports for the current fiscal year (FY) ending on September 30 at $131.0 billion, down from last year’s record of $137.4 billion, but still the second highest annual total.  The details behind the totals indicate that some products show steady growth while other products are variable based on market conditions.

Horticultural products, including fruits, vegetables and tree nuts, have projected exports of $28.0 billion for FY 2012, up from $25.9 billion in FY 2011.  They have had strong growth since FY 2000, when exports were $10.5 billion, except for the recession year of FY 2009 when exports declined by 0.8 percent before resuming growth again in FY 2010.  Projections of volume by fiscal year are not available.

Livestock, poultry and dairy had equally rapid growth from $11.7 billion in FY 2000 to $29.2 billion projected for FY 2012.  Exports were hit harder by the 2009 recession, down 14.4 percent, and a decline in FY 2004 because of the loss of beef exports due to the discovery of BSE in late 2003.    Beef exports on a volume basis have been strong since the BSE issues in 2004 and pork from 2000 forward.

Horticulture and livestock, poultry and dairy together account for $57.2 billion of U.S. exports in FY 2012, 43.7 percent of total agricultural exports. Exports of the two categories in 2000 were $22.2 billion dollars and 43.8 percent of the totals.

The largest category of exports is ‘major bulk commodities’ – wheat, rice, coarse grains, soybeans, cotton and unmanufactured tobacco.  Exports are projected at $47.9 billion in FY 2012 and over the previous four years varied from $36.8 billion in FY 2009 to $57.9 billion in FY 2011, with a five year average, including this year, of $46.8 billion.  On a volume basis, million metric tons (MMT), exports will be 111.7 MMT for FY 2012, with the previous four-year high of 138.9 MMT in FY 2008, a low of 115.3 MMT in FY 2009 and a five-year average of 125.1 MMT.

Exports of oilseeds and products, mostly soybeans and products, are the most consistent year-to-year because markets have been growing, particularly in Asia.  The dollar value for FY 2012 is projected at $25.0 billion, down from the four year high last year (FY 2011) of $29.2 and up from the low of $20.9 billion in FY 2009.  The five-year average is $24.6 billion.  Whole soybean exports are projected at 35.2 MMT for FY 2012, with a high over the last four years of 41.6 MMT in FY 2010, a low of 30.8 MMT in FY 2008 and a five-year average of 36.6 MMT.

Wheat is the most volatile of the major bulk product markets.  For FY 2012 exports are projected at $8.0 billion, with the previous four-year high of $12.3 billion in FY 2008, a low of $5.9 billion in FY 2010 and a five year average of $8.7 billion. Exports on a volume basis are projected for this year at 25.2 MMT, with the previous four-year high of 34.5 MMT in FY 2011, a low of 22.5 MMT in FY 2009 and a five-year average of 28.2 MMT.

Cotton has historically not been as volatile as wheat, but record high price led to export value of $8.9 billion in FY 2011, after a low of $3.5 billion in FY 2009.  The projection for exports this year is $6.2 billion and the five-year average of $5.6 is billion.  The volume of cotton exports over five years was much more stable with a high of 3.0 MMT for FY 2008 and FY 2011, a low of 2.4 MMT for this year and a five-year average of 2.8 MMT.

Corn has been the biggest volume in exports some years, but is far short of the value of exports of oilseeds.  Corn exports for FY 2012 are projected at $13.0 billion, with a previous four-year high of $14.0 billion in FY 2008, a low of $9.1 billion in FY 2010 and a five-year average of $11.7 billion.  The volume of corn exports is projected at 43.5 MMT in FY 2012, with the previous four-year high of 60.6 MMT in FY 2008, a low of 45.2 MMT in FY 2011 and a five-year average of 49.3 MMT.

The dollar value of exports is the most easily used measure of exports and it allows bulk, intermediate and consumer oriented products to be measured on a common scale, but it not a useful measure throughout supply chains.  The cotton industry had record dollar exports in FY 2011, but shipping companies operating on a fixed per unit fee moved about the same volume as in FY 2008 when the value of cotton exported was $4.0 billion less.  A barge operator handling corn and soybeans on the Mississippi River faces a similar situation.

Analysts trying to measure the success of President Obama’s National Export Initiative face a different set of challenges.  Exports of horticultural and livestock, poultry and dairy products will probably increase without the new program.  Overall real economic growth in the world resulting in more consumers in the middle class is likely the largest factor.  The value of U.S. wheat exports almost doubled in FY 2011 over FY 2010 because of the drought in the Black Sea region that increase the volume exported and its average price, not because of the new program.  The $3.5 billion decline in wheat exports in FY 2012 should not be used to criticize the President’s program when a good crop in Black Sea region increased competition.

Using a particular year as a base in looking at the growth in dollars or volume across the entire economy ignores the unique patterns of each industry.  The record U.S. agricultural exports of $114.9 billion in FY 2008 were a combination of large volumes and high market prices.  The export decline to $96.3 billion the following year with a combination of lower volumes and unit prices caused by the natural adjustments to high prices and the worldwide economic slowdown.  We were fortunate that agricultural export value and volumes recovered some in FY 2010.

The dollar value of higher-valued exports of horticultural and livestock product is an appropriate measure of export performance.  ‘Major bulk products’ will continue to bounce around in value and volume based on worldwide production and demand.  Higher unit prices are good, but increased volume is also important.

Ross Korves is an Economic Policy Analyst with Truth About Trade and Technology (www.truthabouttrade.org)