Expanding into foreign markets will be increasingly important to the continued growth of the U.S. farm economy, said several experts at Thursday's agribusiness management conference in Fresno.
More than 300 people attended the 32nd annual event that drew farmers, bankers, insurance company representatives and students.
The one-day gathering, organized by Fresno State's Center for Agricultural Business, brought together experts to spotlight several critical topics in farming, including water, immigration and the economy.
And not all the news was bad, said Terry Barr, chief economist of CoBank.
Exports remain an important part of the farm economy, especially for California. In 2011, California's exports rose 14% from the previous year to $16.7 billion.
California's top five exported products were almonds, dairy products, wine, walnuts and rice. And the state's top foreign markets include Canada, the European Union and China/Hong Kong, Japan and Mexico.
"Export markets are extremely important," Barr said. "But the challenge is where will ag fit in the global marketplace."
Barr said countries like China continue to be a prime destination for U.S. crops, especially higher value ones like nuts. But he also cautioned that the rate of growth in some emerging markets, like Brazil, Russia and India, has tapered to a more normal pace.
"China is driving the global economy and what happens there will determine what happens to ag prices in the future," Barr said.
Two proposed trade agreements involving numerous countries could particularly benefit California farmers, said Mechel Paggi, director of the Center for Agriculture Business. The Trans Pacific Partnership includes Japan, Australia and Vietnam, while the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership includes, among others, the European Union.
Paggi said the trade agreements hold tremendous potential for California to expand its already lucrative foreign trade.
"Nearly every commodity that we deal with has a huge stake in the export market -- from pistachios to kiwi," Paggi said.
Although the trade agreements could benefit both partners, Paggi said there are obstacles to finalizing the pacts. Food safety concerns, the use of genetically altered crops and even political disagreements can doom the trade agreements, Paggi said.
"But there is a lot of merit in pursuing this," Paggi said. "There are a lot of things in the works right now and we need to stay engaged in the world, so we don't get left behind."
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