RICHMOND, Va. (AP) - Farmer Kevin Engel grows soybeans, wheat, barley and corn across 17 counties in Virginia, but he's really a global businessman.
His white corn is milled for export to Europe to make taco shells and wraps. He grows a type of soybean that is coveted in Japan, where they're used to make a pungent fermented breakfast staple called natto. He follows growing trends in South America and monitors the Chicago Mercantile Exchange.
"The bottom line is, exports create a year-round demand for our products," says Engel, who has a crop in his fields year-round.
With Engel and other producers pushing the value of Virginia's agricultural exports near the $3 billion mark, the sixth edition of a statewide gathering of growers, movers and shakers and foreign dignitaries is scheduled Thursday and Friday. The Governor's Conference on Agricultural Trade typically is the venue for the release of the latest export numbers for the state's crops, poultry, lumber and other farm products.
Todd P. Haymore, secretary of agriculture and forestry and a global ambassador for Virginia's farm and forest products, said last week the numbers were still being crunched ahead of the conference in Richmond, but he's optimistic.
"All signs point to a very, very positive year for 2013 for agricultural and forestry products," Haymore said in an interview. "Things are looking very positive to surpass the record levels that we've set over the last few years for agricultural and forestry exports from the commonwealth."
The state's deep-water port, the third largest on the East Coast, and the quality and variety of its forest and farm portfolio have helped Haymore promote Virginia's products. With an ever-expanding global population and a growing international middle class, Virginia-grown goods are likely to find more and more markets, trade experts say.
Haymore, who held the same Cabinet position in the McDonnell administration, says his new boss, Gov. Terry McAuliffe, wants him to up the ante. McAuliffe will make his debut at the conference, delivering the keynote address Thursday.
Over a relatively short span, Virginia has increased its footprint worldwide. Four years ago, the state had one trade office, in Hong Kong. Today it has offices in India, Russia, mainland China, the United Kingdom, Canada, Mexico and Costa Rica.
Haymore is keen to find new markets, and he's looking at establishing more trade offices in southeast Asia, including Indonesia, Vietnam and South Korea. He's also looking for a bigger presence in northern Africa and Europe.
The attraction is obvious.
"A huge number of consumers are well beyond the borders of this country," Haymore said. "We have some incredible opportunities to feed and clothe the world and provide them with the basic necessities, be it the food they eat or putting a roof over their head."
Virginia is not alone seeking new markets for its farm products, with exports accounting for approximately 30 percent of farm cash receipts nationwide, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Virginia agricultural exports reached a record $2.61 billion in 2012, with China accounting for the biggest share. The 2012 trade figure was up by 12 percent from 2011, which in turn increased by 11 percent from the previous year.
Agricultural exports generate about $1.40 in-state for every $1 in products shipped to export partners, enriching the port and the people who get products there, among others.
In some instances, Virginia growers have had to adapt to the desires of foreign consumers, such as Engel.
The soybeans used for natto are smaller and lighter in color and the Japanese insist that they are free of pesticides and herbicides.
"It just means they have to be on the up and up, good and healthy," says Engel, who grows on 17,000 acres, much of it leased, stretching from Charlottesville to Smithfield and beyond. "They want no trace of anything coming through it."
Engel, who has operated Engel Family Farms since 1991, says 70 percent to 80 percent of the soybeans, wheat and barley he grows are exported.
Much of those products, as well as grains from other growers, ultimately end up in Chesapeake at the grain export terminal operated by Perdue Grain and Oil Seed LLC. A fleet of Perdue barges delivers the farm products to the terminal where they are loaded on ocean-going vessels for destinations as diverse as Spain, Morocco and Eastern Europe.
An annual average of 120 to 130 ships sail away from Virginia with their holds laden with agricultural products. Export grains and soybean oil range from 2.35 to 2.5 million metric tons, said John Cassidy, a senior vice president with Perdue Grain.
Cassidy said China's "insatiable" appetite for soybean products makes it Perdue's largest market. "They represent over 65 percent of the world trade in soybeans," he said.
Cassidy and others in the export business often speak with pride of promoting U.S. products on a global scale.
Engel said exports have put a lot of fields back in production.
"We're getting to produce something and create job and equipment needs and also create revenue for the owners of that property so they can pay their taxes," he said. "And we get to participate in feeding the world."
Steve Szkotak can be reached on Twitter at http://twitter.com/sszkotakap