Vilsack touts Pittsburgh region’s successes as trade effort launches

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From “pretzels to truck parts,” companies in southwestern Pennsylvania are already exporting their products near and far. But there are plenty more opportunities, and no business is too small to participate.

That was the message Wednesday from Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who addressed business owners or their representatives gathered in Canonsburg for the White House Rural Council’s first Made in Rural America Regional Forum.

Mr. Vilsack, who grew up in Squirrel Hill, said the region’s established success in business exporting was one reason it was chosen to kick off the first of five discussions on the topic across the country. He made the remarks standing behind examples of local products already being exported, such as organic apples, water filter system components and lumber.

“This is a pretty important meeting from my perspective,” he said. “There is enormous opportunity here.”

Mr. Vilsack praised the role of rural America, calling it “doggone important” and the source of much of the country’s food and drinking water, domestic energy and recreation. Work being done in rural areas frees others to choose different career paths, he said.

“It’s given us this extraordinary capacity to have lives that we select and that we choose, and opportunities that we can take advantage of and not be essentially required to do a certain thing — because others are doing it so well.”

Mr. Vilsack said that when a company builds or makes a product and sells it to another country, it generates more wealth inside the United States.

One example offered at the forum was the Wheeling Truck Center in West Virginia, recent winner of the President’s “E” Award recognizing significant contributions in U.S. exports. The company began exporting in 2010 and since has sold truck parts in more than 94 countries and hired three full-time employees.

Yet another is Nuts About Granola, a York business that started in 2008 at the local farmer’s market as a college senior project of 27-year-old CEO Sarah Lanphier.

About three years ago, the company began exporting custom-made granola for a Colombia yogurt company, Alpina Foods. Nuts About Granola sends its product to Alpina’s U.S. manufacturing facility, where it is packaged and sent to Colombia. “That client of ours is at least half of our business,” Ms. Lanphier said.

Despite some challenges — such as sending perishables through customs and figuring metric measurements into recipes — the company grew 400 percent in one year, and has seen a steady 20 percent growth every year since, Ms. Lanphier said. The company is currently considering doing business in Iceland.

Mr. Vilsack said 1 percent of America’s businesses sell to 95 percent of the world’s consumers.

He encouraged business owners to visit for resources and noted assistance is available for those who can’t afford travel to trade shows. Ms. Lanphier said her company has sought such help in exporting their products.

The forum at the Hilton Garden Inn in the Southpointe Business Park featured speakers from the Export-Import Bank of the United States, Small Business Association and various local, state and national agencies. The next event is scheduled for July 18 outside Memphis.

Molly Born: or 412-263-1944.

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