American farmers, despite being pounded by aggressive world competition and destructive pricing, have been getting some new customers. Still leading the world with 18 percent of the total global agriculture exports, they have been watching their export markets shift. In the past three years, for example, more United States grains and feed have been purchased by less developed countries than by traditional-country buyers.
In 1975, more than half of US grain and feed exports went to developed nations (Western Europe, Canada, Japan, Australia, New Zealand, Israel, and South Africa), US Department of Agriculture figures show. But by 1985, distribution to this group had dropped to less than 40 percent, while a little over 40 percent went to less developed countries. The balance was sold to central planned economies (the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, and China).
There is other evidence that US farm export markets are changing. Sales to less developed countries of oilseeds and seed byproducts - these rank second to grains in US export revenue - have more than doubled in the past 10 years to 30 percent of American export volume.
``The composition of the US export market has shifted, perhaps permanently,'' says Steve MacDonald of the USDA's Economic Research Service. ``And it represents one of the more important trends in US agricultural trade over the past decade.''
The shift to less buying by the developed countries, Mr. MacDonald notes, has been affected somewhat by their increased production, by world prices, and by certain currency constrictions.
``We know,'' he says, ``that developed countries will always be the top customers for US exports. But the growth in less-developed country trade reflects a real change, suggesting that future trade potential may be greater among the less developed countries than in the developed national sector.''
MacDonald's supporting data show that less developed countries in the future will:
Have faster population growth.
Have accelerated economic growth.
Need grain and oilseeds to support emerging animal sectors.
Need supplementary food and feed stocks because of their own limited agricultural proficiency.
``Our traditional customers remain very important,'' MacDonald says. ``But we also have to recognize the increased role of our important third-world customers and the larger potential role of the rest of the less developed world.''
Healthy development of export markets is vital to the future of US agriculture, analysts say. During the 1970s, US farm exports increased an average of 8 percent annually - largely because of a growing world population and the proximity of the US to those of world markets - only to begin declines in the 1980s. Forecasters believe this condition may soon be over. Farm production costs are stabilizing, and returns on investments are recovering, allowing US farmers to compete more aggressively.
Agronomists agree that farm exports will continue to be important as an adjunct to domestic consumption. The potential for economic growth is greater outside the US, and the US has the capacity to help fill any new global needs. By the year 2000, USDA figures show, half of US harvested cropland could be producing for export - up from the 36 percent level of the past five years.