They were aggravating words from the Ag leader.
“One percent of American businesses are selling to 95 percent of the world’s consumers,” Tom Vilsack said Wednesday morning. “That means 99 percent of the businesses are limiting themselves to five percent of the world.”
The Agriculture Department secretary, a Squirrel Hill native, is encouraging more businesses – including those small and/or rural – to export their products. It can be good for their bottom lines, he said, and the general well-being of the nation.
Fronted and flanked by Pennsylvania-made goods, Vilsack was the keynote speaker at the “Made in Rural America Regional Forum” at the Hilton Garden Inn, Southpointe. It was the first of five such events the White House Rural Council is organizing nationwide this year, and the only one at which the secretary will speak.
The forum, sponsored by the Appalachian Regional Commission, attacted a large crowd to Cecil Township, including representatives from about 150 businesses, some of which had their products displayed near the podium.
Vilsack said a number of small businesses are wary of exporting, questioning whether they can benefit from it or whether it is even doable for them. He said yes and yes, amplifying a presentation made 15 minutes earlier by Lyn Doverspike, director of the U.S Commercial Service in Pittsburgh.
Her agency focuses on exporting, and she said “98 percent of all U.S. exporters are SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises). Exporting is not just for big guys.”
During a PowerPoint program, Doverspike listed three misconceptions smaller businesses often have about that endeavor: My domestic market is good and I don’t need to export; exporting is too risky and complicated; and I am too small to export.
“We’re trying to eliminate reasons why small businesses won’t export,” Vilsack said. “There are opportunities to partner to export. I strongly encourage all businesses here to regularly use the tools on the businessusa.gov website.”
Sarah Lanphier owns a business in York that has benefited from exporting. She is the chief executive office of Nuts About Granola, which she started at a farmers market six years ago.
Her firm has one foreign client, Alpina Foods in Colombia, and it is a fruitful relationship.
“Currently, about half of our business is through this company,” said Lanphier, 27, whose products also are sold in Maryland, other parts of Pennsylvania and online. “Our business grew 400 percent in one year after they became our client.”
Though he grew up in the city in an adoptive family, Vilsack has a keen appreciation of an agrarian lifestyle. He relocated to Iowa, became governor there, and now heads the USDA.
He has heightened respect for farmers, whose numbers have diminished but whose spirits and work ethics haven’t. Their efficiency makes up for the decrease.
“Our farmers are extremely productive,” Vilsack said. “About 33,000 farm families are producing 50 percent of the food we consume. Rural area contributions are very much underappreciated.”
The next forum will be in Memphis, Tenn., on July 18. Although Washington County didn’t necessarily stand out as THE ideal locale for the first, it was an appropriate one, Vilsack said.
“You have a lot of fairly successful businesses here, ones that have had success exporting. We’ve seen some growth in Western Pennsylvania because of exports. You are a good example.”