No matter what’s going on in the world politically and economically, people will always need to trade – and the US will still rely on imports and exports to regulate the flow of commodities.
In just half a decade, US trading has been shaken by, amongst other things, political upheaval and the Covid-19 pandemic. The latter affected everyone on the planet — but hit some economies, supply chains, and US states harder than others. In such conditions, firms must decide how best to weather the storm — for example, choosing between a hedging or salvaging strategy.
OnDeck recognizes that small businesses must play to their strengths and utilize the advantages that come with their locality, whatever the conditions. We used recently released data from the US Census Bureau to identify the top import and export in every US state, as well as their ‘most unique import/export’ — the one that’s traded by the fewest other states.
- Petroleum is the top import into 12 states, making it the most common leading import.
- Aircraft are the most common top export, leading in 14 states.
- New York imports $21.9 billion worth of precious metals each year, the biggest import for any state.
- Texas has the biggest export commodity of any state, shipping $43.5 billion of fuel.
Petroleum is the Most Common Top State Import
The most common ‘top import’ in America is petroleum, which is number one in 12 states. In 2020, the US became a net annual petroleum exporter for the first time in 70 years, according to the Energy Information Administration. The US produces a fraction more petroleum than it consumes but imports a significant amount (7.9 million barrels per day in 2020) to refine and then re-export and support domestic needs.
South Dakota’s top import is cow meat. The state raises more beef cattle than people but only has the capacity to butcher a small percentage of those cows each year. The situation illustrates a common import/export paradigm: “Places like South Dakota have been part of a classic colonial economy,” says Fred Kirschenmann, Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture at Iowa State University. “They export cheap raw materials and import expensive processed goods. The critical problem in these rural communities is not just adding value to farm goods, but retaining that value.”
Exclude common imports from the findings and you get to the nitty-gritty of things. These are the commodities that some states import while few, if any, others do. Why, for example, does Delaware import $60.2 million worth of pineapples each year? Because the Dole fruit company receives its pineapple imports to the Port of Wilmington, DE, where the company also held its headquarters until a 2021 merger.
Aircraft Exports Top in 14 States
The pandemic hit the US aerospace and defense industry hard, with exports dropping by 39% to $90 billion year on year. Despite this, aircraft remain the top export from 14 US states, making them the most common top export. Civil aerospace exports make up 84% of US aerospace exports.
South Dakota’s top export may jump out at you. The Mount Rushmore state ships $110.1 million of brewing dregs per year. Distillery dregs have a number of agricultural applications, including use as silage and fertilizer, and can also be used to treat water.
When you remove the most common ‘top exports’ and identify the exports each state shares with the fewest other states, you can see more of each region’s character. Iowa sells corn; Indiana ships trailers. Maine is one of the few states whose most unique export (lobster) is their top export even regardless of uniqueness. And this is despite lobster exports falling by $130.3 million between 2018-2020, in the wake of tariffs on trade with China and the impact of the pandemic.
The Dominance of US Imports and Exports at State Level, Visualized
Finally, we visualized the proportion of US states that each of the top imports and exports dominates.
Petroleum (top import in 24% of US states), medicine (12%), and vehicles (12%) precede a long tail of commodities that are the most imported in only one or two states. However, the presence of airplane parts, aircraft, and light fuels near the head of the ring chart testifies to the importance of the aerospace industry to the US economy. The aerospace sector now faces radical changes due to digital transformation and climate crisis pressures.
From Arizona to Wisconsin, aircraft exports dominate US trade more emphatically than any import – topping 14 states altogether. Medicine and vehicles begin the long tail. Illinois may be famous for farming, motor cars, and Bill Murray, but medicine is its number one export. In fact, Illinois’ vast agricultural industry feeds directly into its medicine production. And the state is home to medical supplies giant Medline, #16 on the Forbes list of largest private companies in the US.
Trade Ethics in Volatile Times
The dynamics of import/exports operate at the nexus of supply, demand, networked economies, and geopolitics. By definition, trade is a deal between what one party has that the other wants — and it is powered by the land and the people from which an export originates. In volatile times, it is telling to see which exporters foreground ethics and hold onto their principles — and in doing so, honor the state from which they operate.
For a comprehensive view of our data, please explore the interactive table below.
METHODOLOGY & SOURCES
The data for each US state is based on official US international trade data for 2020. We cleaned the data by renaming the complex trade descriptions into simpler terms.
The top import and export products for each state were identified by (1) ranking them based on monetary value, (2) ordering the data in descending order, and (3) selecting the top entry for each state.
The most unique import and export products per state were identified by (1) counting how many times a product was cited/listed across states, (2) grouping the data per state and ordering the data in ascending order, and (3) selecting the top entry per state.
For the ring charts, the percentage of each product was calculated by dividing the number of states with the product listed as their top export/import per the number of states.
The data was collected in January 2022.