As Congress dithers over a new farm bill, record U.S. agriculture exports have been placed in jeopardy.

That assessment came from Michael Scuse, USDA undersecretary for farm and foreign agricultural services, during a Thursday (December 19) afternoon press call.

“We’ve experienced the strongest five-year period in the history of agricultural exports,” said Scuse. “This past year was a record-breaking year of $140.9 billion in agricultural exports. It surpasses the record of two years, which was just over $137 billion. Last year, the number was $136 billion.

“Agriculture trade has been gaining a tremendous amount of momentum. … We have a need to continue this momentum and use some of these export programs that have been at our disposal in the past.”

Studies show that for every $1 spent on the export programs -- such as the Foreign Market Development Program and Market Access Program (MAP) -- there is a $35 dollar return on investment. “There are also studies done by some of the cooperators and other industries that show that number is far greater than $1 for $35. 

USDA fact sheet on exports.

“We need a farm bill so we have these programs … to help small and medium-sized companies get into the foreign markets and promote their products. … It isn’t just about promoting agricultural products. As (Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack) likes to point out, it’s a food, farm and jobs bill. Every $1 billion in foreign trade supports nearly 8,000 jobs.”

The need for quick passage of a new farm bill is especially critical because “we’re going to run out of the carryover funds for many of our cooperators during the month of January,” said Scuse.

The squeeze on those promoting U.S. agricultural products overseas is real, insisted Tim Hamilton, executive director for Food Export Midwest/Food Export Northeast.

The two organizations, said Hamilton, “partner with our member state departments of agriculture. We use funding through the Market Access Program, normally authorized through the farm bill, to support efforts by mostly smaller companies to begin exporting and to increase exports of food and ag products. Last year, two organizations working together supported efforts by almost 1,500 different farms.”