In North Dakota, almost all farmers are directly or indirectly involved in the exporting business. This inherent call to export, and the hard work and determination that goes with it, can be seen in the latest data available from the United States Department of Agriculture (USDA), which credits North Dakota with $4.5 billion in domestic agricultural exports in 2017. This makes North Dakota the country’s ninth-largest ag-exporting state.

However, as a landlocked state, many of North Dakota’s ag exports are undercounted, as a variety of products are usually sold to port-adjacent third parties that export them. This technicality aside, North Dakota’s contribution is far from undervalued in the eyes of exporters.

Farmers, processors and manufacturers all count on exports to minimize the risks of unpredictable markets while simultaneously boosting the local economy. In the process, North Dakota has gained a reputation for delivering high-quality ag products abroad. Here’s a closer look at this important give-and-take relationship.

ND Ethanol Trade Mission delegates at the Temape Fuel Tank Terminal in Suape Port near Recife, Brazil; Photo courtesy of Heather Ranck.

Top Exports & Markets

According to the U.S. Department of Commerce, several of North Dakota’s food commodities showed strong annual growth in 2018, including corn (93.1%), wheat (26.8%), rapeseed (canola) (62.7%), and soybean oilcakes (70.6%).

Soybeans, already the top ag export for the state, also increased by 8% (to $62.4 million), with over $20 million going to Canada instead of China. Peas, chickpeas, lentils and flaxseeds are also key exports.

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As in previous years, Canada and Mexico have remained North Dakota’s strongest export partners, although Brazil, Australia and Germany are also strong markets. But of these countries, Brazil stands out as a trade partner with further growth potential. According to Heather Ranck, international trade specialist with the U.S. Department of Commerce, “Brazil has recently made travel visa-free for Americans, and it’s a very large, vibrant growing market.”

In August 2019, Ranck traveled to Recife, Brazil, to assist the North Dakota Trade Office (NDTO), the North Dakota Ethanol Council (NDEC), and five ethanol plants based in North Dakota in setting up meetings with Brazilian buyers and identifying new export opportunities. Looking to the future, she also sees Canada, Eastern Europe (especially Ukraine) and Western Europe as additional regions with strong interests for North Dakota products.

Over at NDTO, Rebecca Espinoza, who is the communications, grants and membership manager, notes, “We see a rise in specialty crops, especially as the population looks to plant proteins for health benefits.” According to Espinoza, “NDTO partners with the North Dakota Department of Agriculture to increase opportunities for our specialty crop growers, such as reimbursement for sales trips and trade missions.”

As developing countries all over the world continue to grow their economy and demand a higher quality of life, North Dakota’s agricultural exporters will remain ready to supply these products whenever and wherever they are needed.

North Dakota ag exports

Exports’ Economic Impact

Exports are a critical part of North Dakota’s agriculture industry, as farmers in the state are very effective producers, creating more ag products than its residents can use. Because of this, many products are either exported or processed (e.g. sugarbeets to sugar, canola seed to oil, durum wheat to flour/pasta). “Without exports, our state would have excess commodities and lower prices,” says Tom Wollin, business development executive at NDTO.

Another benefit of exports to the local economy is increased sales revenue, which can be used to increase production and operation, ultimately leading to new and better employment opportunities.

 “For the state government, increased revenue and employment means tax increases, and this also leads to more employment in the public sector to support and service exporting businesses,” says Jiwon Kim, business development executive at NDTO.

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From increased sales and revenue to higher wages and lower unemployment, it’s clear that international trade can be an effective way to distribute benefits that directly impact the economy.

For those interested in getting started selling abroad, there are numerous programs and grants available to help offset the initial cost in finding new customers. Not to mention NDTO export counseling, the North Dakota District Export Council, and EXIM Bank to help mitigate potential risks.


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