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Published October 03, 2011, 07:29 PM

Thinking internationally

Through the years, I’ve dealt with a lot of successful agriculturalists — and a few who weren’t so successful.

By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek

Through the years, I’ve dealt with a lot of successful agriculturalists — and a few who weren’t so successful.

The good ones, and almost everyone involved in agriculture today, is good at what they do, are organized but flexible. They always have a plan, which they adjust as needed.

The successful aggies have something else in common, too. They think internationally. Even crusty 60- and 70-something still-active farmers think internationally; they may not have visited Brazil or Argentina, but they’re probably keeping tabs on the South American soybean crop.

That international focus is more important than ever. Two sets of statistics from the Chicago-based Food Export Association of the Midwest, a nonprofit organization that uses federal, state and industry resources to help U.S. suppliers increase product sales overseas, underscore the importance of thinking internationally.

- 95 percent of the world’s population and two-thirds of the total world purchasing power are located outside the United States.

- Exports of consumer food products are growing three times faster than sales in the United States.

I’ve talked with ag educators who suggest that college ag students consider working overseas for a year or two after graduation, for first-hand exposure to different food systems and cultures.

Other, more modest suggestions for college ag students:

Take at least a few classes with an international focus. If your school has foreign students, get to know them. Consider studying a foreign language.

The effort won’t be wasted on young aggies who go back to the home farm or end up working in a small farm town. No matter where they live or what they do, young agriculturalists need at least a basic understanding of today’s global economy.

Other people involved in U.S. ag need that international focus, too, though that’s preaching to the choir. The overwhelming majority of modern U.S. agriculturalists of all ages make a reasonable effort to keep tabs on what’s happening internationally.

It doesn’t need to be complicated. Read the farm publications, listen to the radio news, watch the evening TV broadcasts, listen to the expert speakers at commodity group meetings — anything that provides insight into foreign events that affect agriculture in general and your business in particular.

Here’s a three-question quiz — which I’ve just made up and which has no scientific foundation whatsoever — that measures your international ag knowledge.

The questions:

1. What are the “BRIC countries?”

2. What country was the biggest importer of U.S. ag products in 2010?

3. What country was the top importer of U.S. ag products in 2002 through 2009?

Answers are at the bottom of this column.

Answering all three right doesn’t put you in line to be the next U.S. Secretary of Agriculture. Answering all three wrong isn’t cause for embarrassment or a reflection on your job skills. But if you miss all three, it could be a sign that maybe you should pay a little more attention to the big picture.

To preach to the choir one last time, all of us in ag today need to think internationally.


1. Brazil, Russia, India and China. Each has a big, developing economy.

2. China. It imported about eight times more U.S. ag products in 2010 than in 2002.

3. Canada. Its ag imports from the United States doubled from 2002 to 2010. Even so, it slipped to second place in 2010 behind fast-rising China.