From what I've been hearing recently, it seems that few Americans appreciate the fact that trade and trade agreements benefit ordinary working people here at home. But this is in fact the case. Trade creates jobs and helps farmers, workers and small businesses by giving them larger markets to sell to abroad. Trade agreements negotiated by the United States, such as the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA), and the World Trade Organization (WTO) keep the playing field level by opening other countries' markets and ensuring that our trading partners play by a fair set of rules.

I'm convinced the way to make sure my state thrives in the next millennium is to focus on international trade. In 1998 Minnesota exported $14.5 billion worth of goods, which supports more than 150,000 jobs in our state. About two-thirds of that is manufactured goods, and the rest is agricultural products. As an exporter, Minnesota ranks 13th among the 50 states, but I know we can do better than that. Minnesota must be a global competitor in agriculture, technology, tourism and education.

In early November I brought a group of Minnesotans to Japan. I saw Minnesota agricultural products on the shelf, such as Spam from the Hormel Co. in Austin, Minn. And I witnessed the signing of an agreement in Tokyo for the Nichimen Corp. to buy 40,000 pounds of pork center loin each week from the Ellison Meat Co. of Pipestone, Minn. That may not be a big deal by international standards, but it's a big deal for the 80 family farmers who own and grow hogs for Ellison. And an even larger deal for beef is in the works. A lot of people talk about how to save the family farm. I would suggest finding a good export market. I place a greater value on long-term self-sufficiency than on short-term government props.

But not only can we make money by exporting products, we can also benefit by encouraging Japanese tourists to come to Minnesota. I told them about our 10,000 lakes and many golf courses. I explained that more people come to the Mall of America than to Disney World and Disneyland combined. Tourism, which is considered an export, creates jobs for Minnesotans.

My next trip will probably be to Mexico. We had some promising growth there last year. Mexico had been our 13th largest trading partner, but with trade agreements opening up the possibilities, it jumped to number two in 1998 with more than $927 million in exports.

Our number-one trading partner is our next-door neighbor, Canada. The NAFTA agreement with Canada really helps people in my state, by keeping our two-way trade fair. It may seem trivial, but Ontario put restrictions on anglers from Minnesota resorts who fished in international waters, limiting the number of fish they could catch and keep unless they stayed or spent money in Canada. These restrictions applied to 150 miles of our border. They caused people to stay away from our resorts, hurting the resort business as well as boat rentals, fishing guides and others. I complained to the U.S. Trade Representative's office that Ontario's actions violated NAFTA. After our federal trade officials brought this up with Canada, Ontario got rid of some of the restrictions. So NAFTA helped Minnesota's sport fishing industry fight Ontario's unfair regulations.

Successfully competing in the global marketplace is the key to long-term economic health. Because of Minnesota's reliance on exports, I will continue to promote trade and tourism whenever and wherever I can. And that is what our whole country can do.

Most people probably have never heard of the WTO, and some who have heard of NAFTA tend to connect it with jobs moving south of the border. But seeing trade in the real world, and its ability to open up markets for Minnesotans and keep our neighbors honest, I've come to believe we should have more confidence in ourselves. Trade is a real engine of growth in our economy. It helps our economy expand, creates better-paying jobs at home and produces vital and healthy communities.

People who say we can't make it in a more open world are selling us short. If we are confident, if we stand up for our rights, and if we promote the policies that are opening up the world for us, we'll do great.

The writer is governor of Minnesota.