At a time when food prices are posting their sharpest gains in six years -- due in part to a sharp rise in exports -- Maryland officials have scheduled a conference aimed at helping state farmers and food processors boost their sales overseas.
There are a few red faces over the timing of the session, but state and federal agriculture officials say exports are vital to the economic health of the nation and benefit Maryland farmers and food processors.
Errol Small, director of marketing at the state Department of Agriculture, laughed yesterday and admitted that he was in a tough position in trying to explain why the state was encouraging more exports when foreign sales are already contributing to higher prices that consumers pay for such things as milk, bread, bacon, chicken and butter at the store.
"You have to try to encourage more export because all the experts say that the economic growth of agriculture in this country is in the foreign markets," Small said. "For the economic health of Maryland's agriculture community we need to export more."
John M. Schnittker, economist with the consumer group Public Voice for Food and Health Policy, said in Washington: "To promote exports at this time may seem to fly in the face of common sense, but in reality it is something we want."
He explained that the United States is in the world market for the long haul and exports are vital to the economic health of the country, even it means consumers paying more at the supermarket.
Schnittker cautioned, however, that a further rise in food prices could be harmful. He said a rise of 6 or 7 percent, which is possible next year if there is a 3 percent drop in the size of this year's corn crop, could add one percentage point to the Labor Department's Consumer Price Index.
That, in turn, he warned could lead to a one point jump in the CPI and likely prompt the Federal Reserve to raise interest rates. This would boost the cost of everything bought on credit, including cars, homes and major appliances.
Senator Paul S. Sarbanes came up with the idea for the export conference when he learned that the U.S. Agriculture Department was bringing its agriculture attaches stationed in foreign countries to Washington next week for a five-day discussion of new policy, marketing and technological challenges facing the industry.
Sarbanes approached the USDA and asked if the representatives of the 10 countries that offer the greatest export opportunities for Marylanders could come to Baltimore and meet with farmers and food processors.
The session will be held Friday at the World Trade Center. It is expected to draw about 125 people.
Scheduled to attend are Gov. Parris N. Glendening; both of the TTC state's U.S. senators; Lewis R. Riley, secretary of agriculture; James T. Brady, secretary of business and economic development; and Tay Yoshitani, executive director of the Maryland Port Administration.
August Schumacher, head of the USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, the group responsible for exports, will attend along with staff attaches assigned to Chile, France, Germany, Japan, Venezuela, Mexico, China and Russia.
Small said that Maryland agribusinesses exported about $42 million in products last year, nearly double the total in 1994. Poultry products accounted for about half of all exports.
According to Schumacher, U.S. agriculture exports totaled $60 billion last year and accounted for 1 million jobs in this country.
He said farm exports "are critical for the U.S. economy," and noted that they produced a trade surplus of $30 billion last year.
Pub Date: 7/13/96