When Congress finally got the new Farm Bill passed in February, a provision to boost exports from rural America got some attention -- but not a whole lot.
Today, one of the leaders of the initiative called "Made in Rural America," Ashley Zuelke of the Commerce Department, spoke at the Southern Minnesota Economic Summit in Mankato. It's her first trip outside of Washington to get it rolling.
President Obama used the passage of the Farm Bill as a hook to direct several other departments and agencies, including Commerce and the U.S. Trade Representative, to work with USDA to promote exports out of manufacturers and service companies in smaller cities and towns.
American farmers are exporting more than ever, about $141 billion in food and goods last year, and the USDA has a presence not just in most counties in the U.S. but also many countries around the world to keep that engine going.
In an interview, Zuelke said that some of the new work will be as simple as making sure that a county extension agent knows how to connect a small-town business that needs export help with U.S. Commercial Service specialists who are in major cities.
"This initiative was seen as a way to reinforce what's happening on farms and in the food business with the other activities in rural communities," she said. "Exporting companies tend to need more workers and weather downturns better."
For Zuelke, the Mankato event is a dry run for a series of larger forums that are being planned for five different locations around the U.S. later this year by the agencies involved in the Made in Rural America initiative. Those forums are designed to teach business owners about the scope of resources the federal government has available to help them sell products and services overseas, she said.
"It's important to empower and inform not just business owners but also local leaders," Zuelke also said. "Is the local banker going to think of where to go when a customer approaches them needing help with an export opportunity?"
The export assistance that federal and state agencies offer is wide-ranging, including help with languages, understanding trade rules of other countries and even financial aid to attend trade shows overseas.
Separately, the USDA last week announced a $150 million investment fund to help build agriculture-related businesses in rural areas.