By John Holland
The world’s appetite for what the United States grows has increased again, pushing the nation’s farm exports to an estimated $140.9 billion in the last fiscal year.
Soybeans, corn and other Midwest crops played the biggest role, but the San Joaquin Valley found plenty of foreign buyers for its nuts, wine, dairy goods and other products.
“It’s a really good time for the industry,” said John Mundt, owner of Alpine Pacific Nut Co., a walnut processor east of Keyes. It exports about 60 percent of its 40 million or so pounds of annual production, mainly to China, Japan, Europe and the Middle East.
Agriculture continues to perform well in a Valley economy still feeling the effects of the housing market collapse that started in 2006. And it’s good for the nation’s economy, experts say, to have a sector that exports heavily, helping to make up for imports of electronics, clothing and many other consumer goods.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture Economic Research Service reported the $140.9 billion in exports for the year that ended Sept. 30, up 3.8 percent from $135.8 billion the previous year.
“American agriculture achieved record exports once again in fiscal year 2013, and the period 2009-2013 stands as the strongest five-year period for agricultural exports in our nation’s history,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a news release. “We need to remain focused on keeping up the incredible momentum we’ve seen over the past five years.”
Soybeans were No. 1 by far, followed by corn, wheat, livestock feed and pork – mostly products of the nation’s midsection. Then came tree nuts – mainly almonds, walnuts and pistachios from California.
Mundt said demand is strong in part because of reduced harvests in other countries that grow walnuts, such as China and Chile. He also noted the growing number of people in China and India who have entered the middle class and have money to spend. And then there is the publicity about the health benefits of the nuts.
“People are just eating healthier in general,” Mundt said.
Walnut prices have risen to about $2 per pound for the Chandler variety, and a little less than that for other types, processors report. Just five years ago, prices averaged 64 cents, according to the USDA.
The almond industry, which is several times bigger than the Valley’s sizable walnut industry, also is taking advantage of the health message and rising middle class. Growers are seeing prices around $3 per pound, compared with the 2008 average of $1.45.
Export shipments from August through October were up 6.5 percent versus the same period in 2012, according to the Almond Board of California, based in Modesto.
U.S. wine exports hit a record $1.43 billion in 2012, rising 2.6 percent over 2011, the Wine Institute in San Francisco reported earlier this year. About 90 percent of the total came from California, and much of the state’s volume was at the big wineries in and near Stanislaus County.
The figures show the gross income to food and drink producers, but they do not account for the much-larger ripple effect on the region’s economy. Farmers spend much of their money on labor, fertilizer, fuel, equipment and other costs that go into producing a crop. Tens of thousands of people work at wineries, cheese plants, canneries and other processors, and their spending creates still more jobs.
Dairy products also were high on the latest list of U.S. exports, rising 7 percent. Here too, California and the Valley played big roles.
“Reliance upon exports is not just an aspiration in our industry; it’s a reality,” said Tom Suber, president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, at its annual meeting in Chicago last month. “Looking ahead, the reality is that exports must not just continue, but continue to grow.”