When farmer groups in North Carolina set out to promote their products in foreign markets, they have a secret weapon to help them: Commissioner of Agriculture Steve Troxler.

Actually, he is not really a secret anymore. He has been very visible as a member of several trade missions and as a host for visiting foreign delegations.

We can expect more of that, Troxler says.

“My international people have convinced me that my being there (on trade missions) has opened a lot of doors they couldn’t have gotten open any other way,” Troxler said at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture’s (NCDA) North Carolina Ag Forum in Raleigh.

By that he didn’t mean appearances by himself as Steve Troxler, Browns Summit farmer, are going to be a particular help to the export effort. Instead, his appearances in foreign markets as commissioner of agriculture of North Carolina are what have made the difference.

Now, Troxler plans to travel to foreign markets with commodity groups as often as possible. One such trip is coming up soon: He will travel to Switzerland in June to promote North Carolina tobacco. And he might also go on a multi-commodity mission to China that could take place later this year.

Overseas export promotion is expensive, but the payoff could be big: “There is still a huge amount of room for growth in exports,” the commissioner said.

There has been a lot of growth already. The NCDA says the state exported $3.1 billion worth of agricultural products in 2008, the most recent year for which records are available. That’s 51 percent more than what was exported in 2007. It was the first time North Carolina’s ag exports have surpassed the $3 billion mark.

Why? The emergence of China and other international markets that import food from the United States has been a big factor. “As developing countries get richer, the first thing they are going to do is eat better,” said Peter Thornton, NCDA assistant director for international marketing. “That offers us more export opportunities.”

The top North Carolina export commodities were tobacco, animals and meat, cotton and peanuts. North Carolina’s top international customers were Japan, China, Canada, the Netherlands and Germany.

Among Troxler’s other observations at the forum:

• There is a “tremendous” amount of unrest in the tobacco industry. That has been predictable, because of the recent combined effect of the S-Chip legislation, the increase in federal excise taxes, the proliferation of smoking bans and the specter of FDA regulations.

Troxler found it ironic that the industry which has always been such a gold mine for the state is being held back so much in a time like this.

“I wish that in a time of recession and attrition of jobs, we would have a healthy tobacco crop and a stable tobacco industry,” said Troxler. “Instead, we have farmers out there whose contracts are being drastically reduced and (other) farmers whose contracts are being cut out altogether. We are going to lose jobs, we are going to lose tax revenues and we may lose farms out of this.”

• There will be continued volatility in input costs. Fertilizer will probably be up next year, and fuel will be up next year or soon after. He has even seen some information that leads him to fear the price of iron ore will go up, which could raise the cost of machinery.

• The NCDA annually confers an award to what it considers the North Carolina Exporter of the Year. At the Forum, Troxler personally presented the 2010 award to the US Tobacco Cooperative of Raleigh, N.C.

“US Tobacco (USTC) has been instrumental in helping build a stronger relationship between North Carolina and China's tobacco company,” Troxler told Jimmy Crews, a tobacco grower from Oxford, N.C., who accepted the award for the cooperative.

USTC was formerly known as Flue Cured Tobacco Stabilization Cooperative.

U.S. agriculture is well positioned for growth, said North Carolina State University economist Mike Walden at an earlier North Carolina Ag Forum. There are three primary reasons, he said:

• The world will recover from this recession.

• The world economy has dramatically changed with barriers of trade having come down.

• The United States excels in agricultural production.

“We have an industry that is competitive worldwide,” said Walden. “We’ll see a return to growing world income and I think there will be very strong, economically viable, opportunities in the alternative fuels market.”

e-mail: cebickers@aol.com