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A Nation Engaged: America's Place in the World, through the Eyes of Wisconsin Agriculture

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Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio
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Laurie Bates showcases Wisconsin's maple syrup products at State Fair

In collaboration with NPR for the A Nation Engaged series, public radio stations across the country are asking people this week: What is America's place in the world?

For answers from a Wisconsin perspective, WUWM talked to people involved in agriculture. It's one of the most important sectors of the state economy. Those involved envision its role on the global stage growing.

Wisconsin has a reputation as a dairy state, but other countries value additional agricultural products from the state, such as maple syrup.

"My dad started making syrup when he was just a little boy out in the woods," says Laurie Bates of Barron, WI. She helps run a small family business. We met her recently at State Fair where she was promoting her products.

"We have about 8,000 taps that we cook for, that's our own taps, plus other people that we buy sap from. We do it with my parents and my brothers and our families," Bates says.

Bates says the family makes more syrup than it can sell on its own. So it sends the excess to a producer, who ships it to Canada. That's right -- the nation with the maple leaf on its flag turns to Wisconsin for some of the maple flavoring it uses.

Cranberries grown here travel even farther. Steve Johnson is from Wood County, one of the state's cranberry leaders. He says Wisconsin growers also use a middleman to extend their reach.

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Credit Ann-Elise Henzl Reporter Milwaukee Public Radio
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Troy Lobdell stands in the background as one of the sheep from his farm is readied for show at State Fair

"Ocean Spray has a lot to do with that. Of course the cranberry juice, it goes worldwide. The dried cranberries now (are) huge and that can be exported easily," Johnson says.

"Ninety-six percent of the world's population lives outside of the U.S. It only makes sense that our companies would start looking for markets abroad," says Jen Pino-Gallagher. She directs the International Agribusiness Center for the Wisconsin Department of Agriculture, Trade and Consumer Protection.

Pino-Gallagher says Wisconsin's global footprint is growing. Last year alone, the state exported more than three-billion dollars' worth of agricultural products to about 140 countries. She says the economic impact was worth even more, because of the many businesses connected to what grows on a farm.

"From the producers themselves on the farms, to the transportation companies, the processors, the companies that move the products to the ports -- all of those play a part in an agricultural export," Pino-Gallagher says.

The exports also hold value for the countries that import them, according to Phil Karsting. He heads the Foreign Agricultural Service for the USDA. Karsting says Wisconsin products inject variety into the food supply.

"Diets change as societies evolve, as we become more affluent, and so there's going to be emerging middle classes in China, in India, in sub-Saharan Africa," Karsting says.

But more importantly, Karsting says, is the role Wisconsin can play in helping to feed growing populations.

"We are about to have 9.7 billion people on this planet by 2050, and that's going to require an increase of about 70 percent in the amount of food, the amount of calories, we produce globally," Karsting says.

Karsting says opportunities will abound for agricultural businesses in years to come. Yet they face uncertainty in coming months. Presidential candidates Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump differ on the approach the U.S. should take in drawing up trade agreements.

The farmers and food producers we talked to steered clear of identifying which approach they prefer. But sheep farmer Troy Lobdell of Darlington is hopeful Wisconsin's exports will jump under the next administration.

"If the trade agreements would allow us to do that and we're not having a diplomatic argument with another country or something, and they say, 'I'm not going to take any more of U.S. beef, say, for a while,' if we can all get along, I think it would work out," Lobdell says.

We'll continue our A Nation Engaged coverage on Friday, when Marti Mikkelson reports on America's place in the world, through the eyes of Wisconsin's avid Harley-Davidson riders.

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