CASPER – Goods and commodities from Wyoming go places most of us never even imagined: tractor bodies and railroad fixtures to counties like Brazil or Japan, plaster boards to Chile or Indonesia.
One of Wyoming’s signature sectors – the beef industry – is often overshadowed on the state’s ledgers. Soon, though, the beef industry could be taking on a more pronounced role in Wyoming’s export portfolio.
Wyoming’s businesses, despite their landlocked location, are very much a part of the global economy, responsible for introducing more than $1.2 billion in exports to 108 different countries in 2017, according to the Foreign Trade Bureau of the United States Census.
The most significant emerging relationships are in Asia, which has seen an explosion in demand for beef over the past several years. It was no surprise, then, that on Gov. Matt Mead’s visit to Taiwan, Wyoming beef – and several ranchers that produced it – were well-represented as he announced the opening of the Wyoming–Asia Pacific Trade Office, a new project meant to establish and grow trade between Wyoming and Taiwan in agriculture, manufactured goods, minerals and tourism.
The office’s namesake hints at aspirations beyond the island nation, creating what Wyoming business leaders describe as a doorway into the rest of the Asian continent with the aim of capitalizing on brightening prospects for state exports.
Beef is one of those key areas, particularly with its growth potential in Asian markets. Of the top 10 markets for U.S. beef exports, just three – Canada, Mexico, and the Netherlands – are located outside Asia. Though Japan and Korea each account for nearly half of the total product shipped out of the United States, both cultural and social shifts on the continent have helped contribute to what has in recent decades become a happy outlook for bovine byproducts. In the last decade, beef exports to Asian markets have more than doubled, said Wyoming Business Council International Trade Manager Andrew Carpenter, prospects that continue to grow exponentially.
“If you look at that growing market for U.S. beef, a growing middle class in Asia, we say, ‘Hey, we’ve got beef in Wyoming, we’ve got to get into that,’” said Carpenter.
Taiwan, in particular, is a key market; the sector as a whole rated by the U.S. government as a “best prospect” industry in the country.
Wyoming, however, still has some work to do before it can fully engage with those markets. Wyoming Business Business Development Director Ron Gullberg said the opening of the Wyoming-Asia Pacific Trade Office symbolized the start of constructing a framework that will help other sectors in Wyoming go international at a time where state leaders are making a concerted effort to retool the state’s economic engine. While efforts like Wyoming’s ENDOW program and blockchain legislation move forward in the statehouse, the Asian office and its new Director, Chester Chu, will focus on building relationships and building industry profiles to set the groundwork for what could soon become a more robust exchange between Wyoming and the Asian continent.
“In a way, we’re going to build the plane while we’re flying it,” Gullberg said.
While the opening of a new trade office signifies a significant step taken in regard to international exports, building on growth of 19.4 percent from 2010-15, according to the International Trade Administration, Gullberg said domestic markets are another area in which the state has taken an invested interest. Currently, industries like beef – while predominant in Wyoming – may not necessarily generate in-state wealth, due to a lack of processing facilities suitable not just for domestic distribution, but international distribution as well, which have increasingly restrictive regulations for export due to health concerns. Improving these prospects requires a bolstering of local infrastructure to fully take advantage of relationships abroad.
According to Jim Magagna, executive vice president of the Wyoming Stockgrower’s Association, the prospects for cattle processing in Wyoming need to be improved. This will likely begin with bringing in more local processing plants, which have been elusive in recent years. Traditionally, all cattle are finished on something called a feed lot, where corn is typically the feed of choice. Since Wyoming doesn’t have a lot of corn production, it’s always more efficient to move the cattle to where the corn is – in this case, states like Colorado and Nebraska. However, Magagna said, a growing market for grass-finished beef, which can be done in Wyoming, is offering some promise. Innovations with other products offer some opportunity as well: In the Big Horn Basin, the feed from sugar beet byproducts can be used for cattle, an idea Magagna said could be gaining some traction.
While the state is just dipping its toes in the water with a focus on its high-growth, high-potential sectors to start, Wyoming’s economy still has room to expand and diversify. When those new sectors mature, Gullberg said that they will be poised to succeed on a larger scale if those trade relationships are already settled and in-place.
Chu’s chief responsibility as Wyoming’s bridge into Asia is to network, identifying not just immediate openings for the exchange of goods and ideas but also recognizing areas where there may be potential to trade with one another, acting as a sort of “matchmaker” between the desires of Asian markets and the Wyoming economy. This could include the potential for research agreements, international education opportunities and even synergy between firms abroad and those in Wyoming.
“As we talk about economic diversification efforts in Wyoming, you can look at our exports as needing to diversify as well,” said Gullberg. “That could be manufactured products, services, software development…we’re dipping our toes in the water and getting that infrastructure in place to continue toward market development and expansion not just in what we’re good at, but things like outdoor products, value-added agriculture, research and development.”
“We’re working on a lot of parallel tracks right now,” he added. “I’d say exporting, domestically or internationally … outside dollars coming into Wyoming is what we’re aiming for. Not circulating dollars within a region or a city, but bringing funds from outside the state here.”
As Wyoming’s new economy matures, Gullburg said, so will its opportunities.
“A lot of programs that were maybe more ‘isolated’ from each other are all kind of integrating now, from business development, economic development, growth, our startups,” he said. “You look at the steps the state has taken with our blockchain legislation; that could eventually have a role in this, particularly for food source verification. Asian markets are very interested in that, and we’re working on providing those, with things like beefchain. That equals value-added opportunities.”
“This, right now, is the heavy lift,” he added. “We’re making the handshakes.”