Exports & Imports Now

Throughout the 20th Century, the mixture of foreign trade has changed. Agricultural products that once dominated American exports now don’t. U.S. consumers and industry are now buying very different products as well.

Exports. At the beginning of the 20th Century, these were the top products exported by the U.S. to other countries:

  • Cotton was the largest export by a wide margin, accounting for half of the total U.S. agricultural exports.
  • Wheat and flour exports were at 13 percent of all exports.
  • Animal fats were third in the list.
  • Meat products were fourth.
  • All other grains were fifth.
  • Tobacco and oilseeds completed the list of top export products.

By the end of the 20th Century, the list had been reversed.

  • Oilseeds and their products were the dominant U.S. agricultural export, accounting for 20 percent of the $50 billion market. Also, the category had changed; cotton had been the main oilseed before, but now soybeans predominated.
  • Other grains, like corn, barley, rye and rice were the second most important export.
  • Red meat and related products were the third largest category in 2000, reflecting higher global incomes and changes in dietary habits. Also, refrigerated containers made shipping frozen red meat possible.
  • Vegetables were fourth.
  • Fish and shellfish from America’s fisheries were fifth.
  • Fruits were sixth.
  • Poultry was seventh.
  • Cotton had dropped to less than 5 percent of the American export market.

You can get all of the latest statistics at the USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service Web site, http://www.fas.usda.gov/ustrade/USTImFatus.asp?QI

Imports to the U.S. changed over the 20th Century as well. During the early years, rubber, coffee and sugar dominated the list of agricultural imports to America. Rubber couldn’t be grown in the U.S., so tires, belts and other products had to be made from imports. Coffee was also only grown overseas. Some sugar was grown in the U.S. – including in large areas of the Nebraska panhandle. But, that production wasn’t enough to meet U.S. demand. Other goods like fruits, vegetables, grains, meats and oils were imported, but the values of these commodities were small compared to the big three.

By the end of the century, the largest ag category imported to the U.S. was fruit, followed by vegetables. Coffee remained in third place, followed closely by grains and meats.

The changes in imports reflected an increase in per capita income levels and changes in our dietary habits. Americans now consume more fruits and vegetables, and the development of orchards and vegetable farms in South America meant that those products were available year round. Also, Americans have discovered foods from other countries – like Mexican food, Italian, Greek and Chinese cuisine – all requiring ingredients imported from elsewhere.