Georgia has export fever, and its agriculture sector is fanning the flames.

More than a 150 trade specialists, logistics and global financing experts, trade delegates and commodity representatives met in Savannah Sept. 25 to champion ag exports, particularly those coming from Georgia and the Southeast, to the world, a growing planet with an increased appetite for better, higher protein diets.

“The last five years have been the strongest period for agriculture exports in the history of the United States,” said Christian Foster, deputy administrator for the USDA Office of Trade and Promotions. “Projections for U.S. exports this year will be $140 billion. It was only $56 billion 10 years ago.”

 

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Also, the U.S. has a trade balance surplus when it comes to ag exports, meaning it will export $35 billion more in ag products than it will import ag products in 2013, Foster said.

In the near future, the world will have 1 billion ‘middle-class’ citizens, or those with enough income to trade up to better, higher-quality food. More than 850 million of those middle-class bellies will be outside the U.S.

A little perspective: Three years ago, the U.S. accounted for 19 percent of the world economy. It is now down to better than 17 percent of that global economy. In the immediate years that followed World War II, the U.S. accounted for more than 50 percent of the world economic output, taking up the slack as Europe and the world rebuilt following the war, said Todd Gerken, director of the U.S. Commercial Services at the South Georgia U.S. Export Assistance Center.

China’s the big bear in the world now with its buying power, but it isn’t the only one, Gerken said. Africa’s growing middle class is outpacing it. Almost half of the top 20 fastest-growing countries in the world are in Africa or Latin America.

For example, Sierra Leone’s gross domestic product rate has ticked at a 21 percent growth in recent years. In comparison, the U.S. GDP in recent years does well to hit 1.5 percent to 2 percent growth. The EU is predicted to grow less than 1 percent in 2013.

“It’s obvious the rest of the world is getting an increasing share of the buying power, and if you want to grow your business and stay in the game, you’re probably going to have to think about exports,” Gerken said.

2012 was record year for Georgia exports

For Georgia exports, 2012 was a record year across the board with $35.9 billion worth of products leaving the state, a 14 percent increase from a decade ago.

Georgia agribusiness exports totaled $3.3 billion in 2012, or a 26 percent increase just from 2011. In the last decade, though, Georgia’s ag exports have increased more than 143 percent, said Shehzin Jafar, international trader manager for the Georgia Department of Economic Development.

At this time, it is estimated that the production on one out of every three agricultural acres grown in Georgia goes to exports markets.

Panama connection

The key things Georgia’s global traders want, including those related to agriculture at the conference, is the Port of Savannah to get deeper, literally, deeper. At this time, it is the shallowest depth-wise of any major port in the world.

It has 42 feet of draft for ships with a tide flux of seven or so feet. This threatens Savannah’s future growth in the world trade business, including those that trade ag products, said John Petrino with the Georgia Ports Authority.

The Savannah Harbor Expansion Project looks to take care of this depth problem and deepen the port there to 48 feet. Why? To accommodate the larger cargo-vessels that will soon start passing through the Panama Canal, which is being expanded now to accommodate larger ships by 2015.

Larger ships can carry more with less overhead. Simple. But they need deep-water terminals to deliver to and load products from. After more than a decade of working to secure state and federal funding to do this in Savannah, in the next few months things should be in line, if federal funding can pass Congress, to get the actual digging done.

The Garden City Terminal in Savannah has berthing space for nine cargo-container vessels at once, or right now the largest continuing berthing space for any port in North America.

Most terminals have space for two or three such vessels at a time. Savannah boasts the fourth largest port value wise in the country and it is not too far behind the leading ports in New York and New Jersey.

Savannah is the country’s leading exporter of agricultural goods, including poultry, cotton, timber and paper products.

brad.haire@penton.com