Ag exporters turn eye toward China, South Korea

A trade mission to Southeast Asia may result in new export opportunities for Michigan agricultural producers.

The companies spent five days in Asia, Nov. 6-10. Three days were spent in China, visiting two cities, Shanghai and Hangzhou, and two days in Seoul, South Korea.

Nine food-related organizations accompanied representatives from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to China and South Korea in hopes of exporting their products to Asian countries. This year’s trade mission nearly doubled the number of participants from last year’s five-member group.

Four dry fruit companies traveled to Asia, including the fruit cooperative Cherry Central, based in Traverse City; Graceland Fruit, of Frankfurt; King Orchards, located in northern Michigan; and Shoreline Fruit LLC, of Traverse City.

Five companies that market a variety of other products also traveled to Asia, including Traverse City’s Herkner Farms, which produces fruit toppings, condiments, jams, preserves and sauces; Scotty O’ Hotty, a barbecue sauce company based in Dearborn; United Hops Brokerage, which is a broker and processor for hop farmers based in Greenville; Cherry Marketing Institute, of DeWitt; and Nirvana Tea Inc., of Detroit.

Jamie Clover Adams, MDARD director, said the first day was spent on retail tours, where sellers visited high-end grocery stores that sell imported items. While there, Adams said buyers talked about their stores and what they sell, but afterward, sellers took time to investigate some of the products their competitors were selling.

“We walked around to see what they had,” Adams said. “It is important because in Asia, particularly, the packaging is different than it is here in the U.S. You know we like to go out to Sam’s and Costco to buy huge volumes; that is not how Asian people are.

“They want smaller packaging. They don’t want as much. So it is good for the companies to see who the competitors in the market are, how big their packaging is, what kind of products are in the markets.”

On the second day, Adams said companies had a buyers’ meeting, with each company hosting a table showcasing its products. Potential buyers had 20 minutes to speak with American representatives before moving on to the next table.

In China, eight Michigan-based companies met with 75 buyers, and in Korea, four companies met with 50 buyers.

Pam Miller, a representative of United Hops Brokerage who was part of the trade mission trip, said UHB spoke to 12 buyers in China, six in Shanghai and six in Hangzhou.

“They were interviewing us, and we were interviewing them to see if our company would be a good fit,” she said. “One, they want to know, ‘Can you supply the amounts that we need?’ And we are saying, ‘Are you a reputable and a secure company,’ that if we sell to you, can you, in the future, continue to order (high volumes of hops)?”

Miller said UHB now has the ability to export more than 100,000 pounds of hops, which wasn’t always the case. Miller said the amount of available hops has increased in just the past three years, leading to export opportunities in China.

“China has the largest consumption of beer in the world, so it is a good place to seek out potential breweries and brewers who are very interested in U.S. hops,” Miller said. “China does grow hops; however, it does not have enough for its own country … for the amount of beer they consume.”

Eight of the nine companies on the trade mission trip were retail-based, but because UHB does not directly deal with retailers, Miller said they spoke with distributors and importers who purchase hops for the Asian breweries.

According to Miller, participants also had an opportunity to visit an agricultural trade office for an update of where China and the U.S. are regarding exporting and importing. They also participated in panel discussions with six companies in China that handle all the e-commerce, similar to Amazon.

UHB did not go to South Korea, preferring instead to focus on China and what it takes to do business there, Miller said.

Although UHB hasn’t exported hops to Asia, Miller said she hopes to begin that process within the next six months to a year.

Miller established Hopyards of Kent in 2011, but West Michigan Hopyards acquired it in October. However, Miller said she has a hops harvest center for growers, which jointly works with UHB.

Michigan food and agriculture exports in 2016 totaled $75 million in Korea and $58 million in China, according to Adams.

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