<p>Jerry Hingle stands in front of ship loaded with poultry for overseas markets.</p>

Jerry Hingle stands in front of ship loaded with poultry for overseas markets.

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When Ron Kirk addressed the Metro Atlanta Chamber this month, there likely wasn't a farmer in the room. 

Yet one of the brightest statements woven into the U.S. trade rep's speech on national problems like the fiscal cliff and K-12 education was his assessment of agricultural exports. 

Even with a historic drought, America is on pace for its best year ever for selling food, timber, meat and plants overseas. U.S. ag exports hit $137 billion in 2011 and were up 2 percent through October compared to the same period last year, even as export growth slowed overall. 

If the country's ag exports are climbing slowly, Georgia's are skyrocketing. The state saw a 26 percent uptick to $3.6 billion during the first 10 months of 2012, already surpassing its totals for all of 2011. 

If Mr. Kirk's statement is true that 7,000 jobs are created for each $1 billion in farm exports, more than 20,000 Georgians are getting a paycheck because Angolans are chowing down on chicken and the Chinese are cracking open peanuts and pecans. 

"This is the best run that we've seen in the United States in the history of the country. Since 2009 our exports are up 50 percent already. It's been really strong; we've had the wind at our backs."

"This is the best run that we've seen in the United States in the history of the country. Since 2009 our exports are up 50 percent already. It's been really strong; we've had the wind at our backs," said Jerry Hingle, executive director of the New Orleans-based Southern United States Trade Association, or SUSTA, which leads American companies to ag trade shows in more than 30 countries each year. 

Global Atlanta asked Mr. Hingle what's behind the rapid growth. 

1. A hungrier, richer world 

By 2050 the world could have more than 9 billion people, according to U.N. projections, and a global middle class is rising. Couple that with the fact that more money tends to make consumers more carnivorous, and you have a recipe for sustainable "caloric demand" at all levels, both subsistence and indulgence, Mr. Hingle said. 

He added that though some countries cite past outbreaks of disease and the use of hormones to keep U.S. products out of their markets, most global consumers trust the safety of American food. Beyond that, access to American groceries and fast food chains can be status symbols in places like China, which now has more Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets than the United States. 

2. Less rain makes busy butchers. 

With a massive drought hitting the Midwest this year, exports of bulk crops like soybeans and corn were down. But, somewhat counterintuitively, meat exports rose.

"Because the grain costs went up and corn went up in line with the drought, we saw a lot of people culling their beef cattle and their pork operations," Mr. Hingle said. 

Translation: More meat flooded the domestic market, driving down prices and making it more competitive abroad. 

Georgia followed the trend, with red meat exports climbing 49 percent in the first half of 2012.

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