WASHINGTON As many states look to increase their global exports, one of the biggest challenges is among the most basic: finding ways to move products so theyre ready to be shipped overseas.
In Idaho, wheat, vegetables and dairy products were among the top agricultural exports in 2012, according to the Idaho Department of Agriculture. The products were destined for Canada, Mexico, China and Japan.
But the states location sometimes limits local businesses ability to ship exports abroad efficiently, fueling a reliance on truck drivers to haul goods to transfer points such as Seattle, Portland and Oakland, said Jan Roeser, a regional economist at the Idaho Department of Labor.
We cant even get enough trucks, said Bill Newbry, the chief executive officer of the Pacific Northwest Farmers Cooperative, which represents more than 750 farmers in the Idaho and Washington region. We could utilize 12 to 15 a day, and were lucky to get three or four. Its very, very difficult to get the commodity out on time.
Theres a river port in Lewiston, about 465 miles from the Pacific Ocean, but some Central and Southern Idaho businesses arent able to access it easily, Roeser said.
In 2011, about 500,000 tons of wheat were shipped from the port, and that increased to about 725,000 in 2012, according to port records. The number of container shipments from the port dropped from about 13,000 in 2007 to 5,000 in 2012, however.
The container decline has been a function of the Great Recession, said David Doeringsfeld, manager of the Port of Lewiston. Were not trying to become a West Coast port. What were doing is providing for the region the least-cost method for local businesses.
Limited access to freight rail is another problem Idaho businesses face.
We dont have as many goods as others might, so we dont get preferential treatment by the railroads, Roeser said. We have smaller amounts, smaller goods, and it just doesnt pay for them to stop and pick up what we have.
Although the demand for truck drivers continues to increase, experts say that trucking companies face recruitment challenges, which further limits the states ability to increase global exports.
The nationwide demand for truck drivers will grow by 21 percent from 2010 to 2020, faster than the national average for all occupations, the Bureau of Labor Statistics projects.
Trucks go anywhere or just about anywhere, said Bob Costello, the chief economist at the American Trucking Associations. As the economy continues to improve, we see demands for truck drivers increasing. If you go to truck driver training school and dont have a criminal record or poor driving record, youre going to get hired.
In Idaho, about 20,000 truck drivers and driver/sales workers were employed in 2012, up from about 18,000 in 2010, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
To recruit more drivers, trucking companies and driving schools have been partnering, said Julie Pipal, the president and CEO of the Idaho Trucking Association.
One of those is Handy Truck Line, which has about 100 employees and four locations in Idaho.
CEO Clay Handy said he hasnt encountered many problems retaining truck drivers, but he noted that some companies face high turnover.
The core problem is that for most people, its not an attractive job, he said. They want to be home more often.
Said Newbry, of the farmers cooperative: You can tell how good the economy is by the demand for transportation. If you cant find enough trucks to haul your product, theyre somewhere else hauling.
Idaho targets ag, tech exports
Although Idahos global exports wavered some from year to year, the Gem State increased the volume of its products going overseas by nearly 192 percent over the past 10 years, representing about a $4 billion increase in goods, according to federal trade data.
Idaho is a merchant state, Gov. Butch Otter said in a statement. We cant consume all that we produce here, so its critical that we develop markets domestically and internationally for Idaho commodities and products.
From 2009, the starting point for the Obama administrations National Export Initiative, through 2012, Idahos exports of goods grew 58 percent, compared with national growth of 46 percent, according to federal trade data.
Computer and electronic products, transportation equipment, manufactured food products, primary-metal manufacturing, chemicals and agricultural products were the states largest export categories in 2012. Canada, Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea and China were its top five trading partners.
With Micron Technology in Boise, local experts say that electronics, exports of which increased by 137 percent in the state from 2003 to 2012, continue to help drive Idahos business.
We are more than potatoes, said Megan Ronk, the Idaho Department of Commerces chief administrative officer. Even so, Ronk said agriculture continues to be one of the states strengths.
As part of Otters goal to expand global trade, the Republican has visited a number of countries including South Korea, Taiwan and Vietnam to meet with government and corporate officials, hoping to create and foster trade relationships. Seventeen Idaho companies traveled with Otter on a nine-day trip to Russia in November.
Missions like this create and maintain Idaho jobs, and they expose the world to the quality and value that Idaho brings to market, he said in his statement.
Other major corporations, such as Chobani yogurt, have set up shop in Idaho, but the state still ranks 38th as an exporter, according to 2012 data.
Idahos isolated location and small population affect its ability to trade globally, experts say.
Nevertheless, the state has seen a growing overseas market for some of its goods.
A lot of Third World countries that were considered more developing countries, theyve become more wealthy, said Jan Roeser, a regional economist at the Idaho Department of Labor. They are able to buy more of the agricultural exports weve sent out.
The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. The Idaho Statesman contributed.