Congressional approval of three free-trade agreements on Wednesday is a big win for the dairy industry.

Particularly in the case of South Korea, the free-trade agreement will provide greater access to an already burgeoning export market. South Korea has become the No. 2 export market for U.S. cheese behind Mexico. Total U.S. dairy exports to South Korea have grown significantly since the late 1990s:

1995-2000 (yearly average) -- $30 million

2006 -- $66 million

2010 -- $131 million

2011 (through July) -- $145 million

It pencils out to about a 14 percent compounded annual growth rate since the 1995-2000 period — much of it from increased cheese sales.

The U.S. Dairy Export Council, with an office in Seoul, South Korea, has been working with that country’s bakers and pastry chefs to use more U.S. cream cheese. Efforts have included bakery seminars, recipe booklets and an annual bakery competition. USDEC has also worked with pizza chains in that country to use more U.S. pizza cheese.

Besides South Korea, the free-trade agreements approved on Wednesday include Panama and Columbia.

““The FTAs will expand U.S. dairy exports and, when fully implemented, will create thousands of export-supporting jobs in the dairy industry,” said Tom Suber, president of the U.S. Dairy Export Council. “We hope that all necessary steps can be taken in the coming months by all four countries so that the agreements may enter into force at the beginning of the year and benefits to the U.S. economy can begin to be felt immediately.”

Suber pointed out that the agreements will not only help expand export sales for such products as cheese, whey, skim milk powder, and other dairy products, they also will prevent foreign competitors from taking market shares that the U.S. industry has developed in each of the countries in collaboration with USDEC. “In international trade, unless we continue to move forward, we risk falling behind our competitors,” he said. “These agreements will ensure that, for America’s dairy farmers and processors, export sales will continue to expand, not contract.”