Illinois Director of Agriculture Bob Flider stresses the need for states to work together to more effectively market their agricultural products for export.
Illinois Director of Agriculture Bob Flider stresses the need for states to work together to more effectively market their agricultural products for export.

ST. LOUIS — States must form partnerships in order to more effectively market agricultural products for export, according to the agriculture directors from Illinois and Missouri.

Illinois Director of Agriculture Bob Flider and his Missouri counterpart, Jon Hagler, told members of the St. Louis AgriBusiness Club that a combination of international competition and domestic economic problems make such partnerships imperative.

“We want to join with our brethren to look at how we as a region can learn to compete globally,” Hagler said. “With Russia and China, you see the vast change and what we can offer them. We know their consumers are hungry for product, that their farmers are hungry for innovation. We can provide that innovation.

“By providing that, we’re going to learn a lot more about ourselves. We need to focus on those initiatives abroad. That does include exports.”

Flider agreed that those in agriculture must work in tandem, both across interest groups and political entities.

“It’s all about working together and how stakeholders are working together,” he said.

The global economy affects agriculture as much as any other industry, according to Hagler. And while he acknowledged that Missouri, Illinois and other Midwestern farm states have made progress marketing agriculture commodities, he reiterated that a collective effort is superior.

“Each individual state has had some success in their individual export markets. But the success they can have as a group is so much more powerful,” he said.

“I’m certainly a big advocate not only of what we’re doing in state of Missouri, but of joining with our sister states.

“We’re not just competing against Texas or North Dakota or Kansas, but against groups of states — the EU, for example, or countries from South America.”

Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn placed Flider — whom he appointed to direct the agriculture department a year ago — on the state’s export advisory council. That is part of a strategy to improve the shipment of goods overseas.

“Our governor has set a goal: He wants to double our state exports by 2015. That’s a huge undertaking,” Flider said.

“Each year about 45 percent of our commodities are sold overseas. That’s significant not only for farmers and people in rural Illinois, but for the companies. We’re very fortunate to have a governor who understands the importance of exports.”

The council’s members also include representatives from Illinois agribusinesses and organizations such as the state Farm Bureau.

While the department oversees the agriculture industry, it is unique among regulators, according to Flider, who had worked at a power utility before a political career that included a stint as a member of the state House of Representatives.

“The Department of Agriculture is primarily a regulatory agency,” he said. “Regulators are anything but big fans of the utility companies. Bank regulators aren’t big fans of bank companies. But when it comes to agriculture regulation, we’re the biggest fans. It’s our No. 1 industry, and we want to see it be a success.”

Last year, the agency led foreign buyers on a five-day trade tour of the state. Flider said the mission resulted in projected sales of $52 million, double what had been accomplished total over the three years prior.

Hagler noted that fewer than 2 percent of Americans live on a farm or ranch, with much of the other 98 percent removed from agriculture two to three generations. That makes it important that those in the industry tell their story.

“It is incumbent upon those of us in agriculture to band together to reach out for those things we have in common,” he said. “We have to reach out to our consumers. Every single consumer has a stake in agriculture doing well. They have to understand and appreciate it’s the farmer who puts food on their table.”

American families pay an average of only about 8 percent of their income on food, statistics indicate. That compares favorably with the average of 15 percent to 16 percent in industrialized nations. Some families in Third World nations pay as much as 80 percent of their income on food.

“We need to tell our story. When the American farmer does well, America does well,” Hagler said.

“There’s more money on Main Street, small businesses thrive, there’s more money in the church plate on Sunday and schools are better funded. That’s because American farmers invest in America. They spend their dollars right here at home. They keep the economy turning over.”