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MADISON, Wis. – A new Wisconsin initiative is aimed at opportunities to sell Wisconsin-grown and -processed products, from the United Kingdom to Southeast Asia. It seeks to boost agricultural exports during the next five years by almost $1 billion.

A recently approved $5 million program tasks two state agencies with promoting Wisconsin agricultural products abroad, setting a goal of increasing export values 25 percent by 2026. Called the Wisconsin Initiative on Agricultural Exports, it’s supported by a broad coalition of industry groups. It was initially funded by the 2021-2023 biennial budget and further authorized by legislation Wis. Gov. Tony Evers signed in early December. The money could fund trade missions, one-on-one consulting, efforts to identify new exporters and new markets, and other promotional activities for Wisconsin ag products.

The Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection will work with the Wisconsin Economic Development Corp. to grow international demand, which has been relatively flat in recent years.

Randy Romanski, state ag secretary, said Wisconsin builds from a strong base. The state ranks 13th in agricultural exports; it leads the country in categories like ginseng roots, cranberries, raw fur skins and bull semen.

“Agricultural exports are really important for Wisconsin’s agricultural economy,” he said. “It has consistently been important, and I think it’s going to continue to be important and actually grow in importance.”

Chad Zuleger, associate director of government affairs for the Dairy Business Association, said there were times he thought the program might not be approved because of some of the partisanship in state politics. But it eventually received unanimous support in the Wisconsin Legislature.

“You really can’t find something that everybody’s going to coalesce around,” Zuleger said. “You just can’t maintain the status quo. You got to find new opportunities and maximize those in order to be successful. I think Wisconsin got this one dead-on right.”

Jennifer Digman is the special-products-ideation and export coordinator for the Lafayette County-based cheesemaker Shullsburg Creamery. She said it exports a variety of its own cheese as well as products from artisan cheesemakers – primarily to the Middle East, Japan and Central America.

Whenever demand for dairy products falters in the United States, foreign markets help to keep money coming in for farmers, cheesemakers and other dairy processors, she said.

“There’s a lot of benefit there,” she said about the new export initiative. “But it’s not just going to help Shullsburg; we’re just a small part of that. It’s going to help, I think, a lot of the small cheesemakers. That is just going to make us stronger as a whole.”

Agriculture is a $104.8 billion industry in Wisconsin. In 2020, the state exported $3.37 billion worth of food, forestry and other agricultural products. From 2016 to 2020 the value of agricultural exports had generally held steady, with the five-year record coming in 2017 at $3.52 billion. Romanski said the international market has been hurt in recent years by the pandemic as well as trade disputes resulting in tariffs and retaliatory tariffs.

At $1.2 billion worth of products purchased in 2020, Canada is Wisconsin’s largest agricultural trading partner. It was followed by China at $274.7 million, Japan at $176.8 million, South Korea at $173.4 million and Mexico at $169.8 million.

The new program’s goal of growing by 25 percent will be based on the year-end value of ag exports for 2021. By the end of September exports had increased by about 18 percent year-to-date compared to 2020.

Despite dairy accounting for about half of the state’s overall agricultural economy, a category referred to as “miscellaneous food” led Wisconsin in exports for 2020; it includes food like sauces, mustards, ice cream and soups.

The state has already been supporting Wisconsin companies seeking to sell ag goods overseas through the ag department’s International Agribusiness Center; it provides technical consulting, identifies potential markets and offers other services.

A really important component of the $5 million in state funding is its flexibility, Romanski said. Typically the agribusiness center receives federal dollars or money from third-party organizations earmarked to a specific product or to go after a specific country. The state money widens the scope of activities the center can engage in.

“We can be strategic in finding other types of products or other countries that we can now approach that we might not have been able to with the narrower source of funding,” he said.

The Wisconsin Legislature gave direction that half the $5 million should be spent to promote dairy, and $1.25 million each on meat and crops. To grow exports by 25 percent it will be important to both strengthen existing foreign markets and expand into new countries, Romanski said. For example there are opportunities to make inroads in the post-Brexit United Kingdom, which imports a majority of its food.

Zuleger said for whatever reason, demand for Mozzarella cheese is growing fast in Southeast Asia.

“I get excited about the opportunity to really go after the export markets,” he said.

But John Umhoefer, executive director of the Wisconsin Cheese Makers Association, said making the switch from solely selling domestically to selling internationally can be a barrier for cheesemakers.

“To us one of the big functions this legislation can provide is personal hands-on assistance with our cheesemakers to help them understand all the logistics, and to work through the logistics and paperwork to move products overseas,” he said.

Venturing into exporting isn’t necessarily difficult, Digman said. But there’s a learning curve, from country-specific paperwork to ensuring products are culturally and religiously appropriate. For example the size of refrigerators in some countries is smaller than American refrigerators, requiring cheese to be packaged in smaller quantities.

“When you’re looking at growing your customer base, it’s the biggest untapped market that we have for ag exports,” he said.

Genex Cooperative of Shawano, Wisconsin, is in the dairy- and beef-genetics industry, selling frozen bull semen for artificial inseminations around the world. The company sells millions of units annually, shipping about 65 percent to other countries, said Dean Gilge, vice-president of international marketing for Genex. Demand continues to grow; Genex plans to hire more employees at its Shawano and Watertown facilities in Wisconsin, where several-hundred are already employed.

Wisconsin leads the country in the semen industry, exporting $160 million worth of bull semen in 2020 – more than twice as much as second-ranked Ohio. International sales of Wisconsin bull semen almost doubled in value from 2016 to 2020.

Gilge said he hopes to see the state further educate international buyers at trade shows regarding American cow genetics, which he calls the “gold standard” because vast amounts of genetic data can predict traits like utter composition and eating efficiency.

“It’s a global competition for the genetics,” he said. “There is a bit of a threshold that you hit within the United States. The rest of the world is bigger than the United States, and that’s where a lot of money is made in the export market.”

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