When you think of Minnesota's bountiful agricultural products, images of beautiful cornfields or fresh produce at your local farmers market are more likely to come to mind than families in far-flung countries enjoying our state's agricultural exports.

But Minnesota farmers do much more than supply food for people in the Upper Midwest or the United States. Our state ranks fifth in the nation in agricultural exports to markets outside the U.S. and those exports have nearly tripled over the past 15 years.

Agricultural exports play an important role in providing jobs for Minnesotans. Our state's ag exports support 51,000 jobs here in Minnesota and generate $18.4 billion in total economic activity in our state.

That's why it is important for Congress and the Trump administration to work to strengthen, not damage, our ability to access overseas markets. Ninety-five percent of the world's population lives outside of the United States — and that population is growing faster than the one here at home.

Agricultural exports account for more than one-third of Minnesota's total agricultural sales. Soybeans are the state's top ag export commodity, followed by corn. Dairy exports are among the fast-growing category of ag exports, and approximately 25 percent of all Minnesota pork is bound for export to countries such as Japan, Mexico and China.

Trade agreements that provide greater access to global consumers are essential to our state's economy. Our farmers are some of the most efficient in the world and our abundant natural resources and favorable climate position us for success on the global stage.

Unfortunately, rhetoric in Washington has turned against trade, even though it brings great benefits to our state. Earlier this year the Trump administration withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) and some have called for renegotiating or ending the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA).

When the U.S. withdrew from the TPP, it meant Minnesota farmers lost opportunities for significant tariff reductions on wheat, pork and beef. And NAFTA has been a major success — Minnesota agricultural exports to Canada and Mexico have more than tripled since NAFTA was negotiated in 1994. If the U.S. steps aside, other countries will be eager to fill the void and seize the opportunity to increase their ag production and exports. We risk losing our leading role as a reliable supplier and partner to countries around the world.

We recognize that no trade agreement is perfect and not every country or economic sector gets everything it wants in these negotiations. But closing the door on foreign markets means much more will be lost than gained for Minnesota agriculture and the state's economy.

With many Minnesota farmers struggling because of several years of low commodity prices, it is more important than ever for Congress and the Trump administration to support efforts that will expand market opportunities for agricultural and food products. We encourage federal leaders to look past the fiery rhetoric and avoid the lure of reverting to protectionist trade policies that will hurt our state and its citizens.

Perry Aasness is executive director of the Minnesota AgriGrowth Council (www.agrigrowth.org).