This week, I visited Canonsburg, Pennsylvania, a small city outside of my hometown of Pittsburgh, to kick off the first of five Made in Rural America forums designed to help rural small businesses access the information they need to grow through exports.
The global appetite for high-quality, American-made products is well established. Over the past five years, rural America has achieved record agricultural exports, but the rural economy is diverse. Last fiscal year, agricultural exports reached a record $140.9 billion, and we are on track for another record year, with fiscal year 2014 agricultural exports projected to reach $149.5 billion. Last year was also the fourth-straight record-setting year for U.S. exports as a whole, reaching $2.3 trillion.
Yet few American companies today have capitalized on this demand — just one percent of U.S. companies export. At the same time, the vast majority — 95 percent — of the world's consumers live outside the borders of the United States, creating significant opportunities for our exporters, particularly rural businesses.
Some rural-made products have already established themselves in the world market, clearly demonstrating the opportunity that the remaining rural manufacturers, service providers, and value-added producers may be missing out on. For example, Ziegler Brothers, Inc. of Gardners, Pennsylvania (population 150) manufactures specialty animal feeds, aquaculture feeds for fish and shrimp farms, feeds for pet exotic animals, and specialty diets for animals that have served as health models in research since 1935. Today, Ziegler Brothers, Inc. exports to 40-50 countries a year, many in Africa and Southeast Asia. Exports now account for approximately 50 percent of their overall sales.
The potential for rural exports is obvious, but some rural businesses may need additional support to get started. That is why the Administration, through the White House Rural Council, has convened this series of five regional forums to connect rural business and community leaders that want to expand their markets and sell internationally to federal, state, and local expertise, including established rural exporters.
We’ve also updated the tools at BusinessUSA.gov to make it easier for rural businesses to find information and federal resources to help them export. The portal features information from 24 federal agencies, a news feed highlighting recent export opportunities and developments, and a forthcoming self-assessment tool for rural businesses preparing to export.
Exporting companies grow faster, employ more workers, and pay higher wages than non-exporting companies — driving rural economic growth. Agricultural exports in this country support nearly one million jobs, and expanded rural exports have the potential to support additional jobs and growth in rural America.
For the 46.2 million people living, working, and running small businesses in rural counties across the country, rural exports represent tremendous opportunity. Equipping them with additional tools and information they need to access overseas markets will allow them to seize the opportunity to make global sales and grow their businesses — supporting good-paying jobs and fostering economic growth in rural America.
Tom Vilsack is the U.S. Secretary of Agriculture.