Stephen Hartgen

Stephen Hartgen

The news blares how the world is going to hell in a handbasket but if it does, the basket of overseas sales of Idaho agricultural products is filling up, even in a world-wide downturn.

And not by a little, but a nice and robust 11 percent in the first quarter of the year, which ended March 30. Sure, the stats don’t include a likely wallop in early April as the coronavirus hit employment and supply chains from meat-packing plants to restaurant onions. But even with those blips, to be reported in the second quarter, Idaho is showing positive ag overseas sales.

“Idaho might have experienced even stronger export growth during the first quarter if the COVID-19 pandemic had not begun disrupting supply chains in March,” says Doug Robinson of Northwest Farm Credit Services.

Here are some of the real stats, reported from the USDA and in the June issue of the Farm Bureau’s Gem State Producer. Total value of exports jumped to $257 million, an 11 percent increase over 2019. That would put overseas ag sales on track to nicely top last year’s total ag exports of $897 million. Canadian and Mexican demand led the buying countries in the first quarter, a result of the US-Mexico-Canada Agreement. Japanese purchases also climbed.

Looks like the anti-trade voices on the political right were, well, wrong again. International trade of Idaho ag products continues to be a bright spot across Southern Idaho particularly, where diversified crop and livestock sectors continue to shine.

The dairy sector, which includes wheys, proteins as well as milk and cheese, came in at $47 million. Milk is still troubled by price declines and oversupply (Wall Street Journal, 6/18, but wheys and other high-proteins milk product sales jumped almost 70 percent.

Malting barley jumped as well, showing $36 million, and livestock was up nicely on the strength of a big heifer sale to Vietnam. Cereal grains, including wheat and barley, jumped 219 percent.

These numbers reinforce a trend we’re seeing in Southern Idaho food processing. While there have been some COVID-19-related issues at a few plants, companies are moving quickly to ensure worker safety and still keep product lines flowing.

A recent article (TN, April 5) outlined how Idaho’s food processing sector is cooking! Major local employers and their farm contracts keep the ag economy nicely afloat.

Sure, margins aren’t what they might be. Milk, for example, has shed some of its profitability in recent months. Still, things could be a lot bleaker than they appeared in mid-March when the COVID-19 pandemic shut down much of the American economy.

Major meat processing plants have reopened and while it may take time to clear out supply chain backlogs, plants are working hard to do just that. Hog processing, for example, is back online in the Midwest, as are major Western beef packers. Hog producers in the Midwest were scrambling just weeks ago to find outlets for their product, but that backlog seems to already begin clearing just in time for summer grilling.

Pricing? Well that’s another story. Consumers can expect to pay more at the grocery store for many products, but over time that may diminish, too.

Idaho remains a major player when it comes to agricultural products, ranking first in the region for value of ag products by size of state populations. There may be more wheat grown elsewhere or cattle on feed. but up and down the food chains, Idaho is turning out quality products to meet American and world demand.

The state ranks No. 5 in the nation for value of ag products sold, some $26 billion and since 1997, ag cash receipts in Idaho are up 70 percent adjusted for inflation, compared to the nationwide gain of 20 percent.

Southern Idaho numbers show that the broad reach of ag counties from Payette to Fremont counties are Idaho’s diverse breadbasket. There’s hardly a product from hops to barley, cattle to dairy, that isn’t grown successfully across the region.

Scaremongering from groups that have other foreign policy objectives, such as the John Birch Society on China, would like nothing more than to see U.S. sales to these nations dry up and blow away. But from the farmers’ perspective, ag sales exports are a decided plus across Southern Idaho.

It’s yet another reason Idaho political leaders should be looking ahead with optimism. The state’s federal delegation of James Risch, Mike Crapo, Mike Simpson and Russ Fulcher has been uniformly supportive of Idaho’s foreign ag sales, but there are plenty of “hell no” voices in the backwoods state GOP party and among the Legislature’s noisy know-nothings.

Keeping this group of juveniles away from real decision-making ought to be a chief goal of every sales-oriented commodity commission in the state.

Stephen Hartgen of Twin Falls is a retired five-term Republican member of the Idaho House of Representatives, where he served as chairman of the Commerce & Human Resources Committee. Previously, he was editor and publisher of The Times-News (1982-2005). He is the author of the new book “Tradition & Progress: Southern Idaho’s Growth Since 1990.” He can be reached at