May 21, 2012
China: Land of opportunity for U.S. agriculture

When USDA announced it would conduct a trade mission to China this year, James Elgart decided it would be a good idea to go along.

As president of Portland, Ore.-based Far West Fruit, Elgart has been shipping fresh cherries – along with other fruits, some asparagus and nuts – to Europe for a dozen years. He thought he’d missed the boat when it came to China, however – that any opportunities there had already been taken.

Turns out he was wrong, he said.

“What the mission was very good at showing was that there’s a lot of opportunity there,” he said. “You’ve got to remember that there’s 750,000 people in the greater Portland area, including southwest Washington. We landed the first day in a city of 15 million people, and that was a small city.

“It really is a great opportunity for U.S. agriculture, and the USDA has done a good job trying to match people up.”

Elgart was among 40 American businesses that participated in the mission to China, led by acting Under Secretary for Farm and Foreign Agricultural Services Michael Scuse in March. During stops in Chengdu and Shanghai, participants met with dozens of Chinese producers, importers, buyers, distributors and investors.

Josh Weiner, an international account manager for Bryant Christie Inc., who participated in the mission on behalf of the Cranberry Marketing Committee (CMC), said those one-on-one trade meetings in Chengdu and Shanghai were “the most valuable part.”

“I had back-to-back meetings, from 8:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., at half-hour intervals both days,” Weiner said. “It was an intense meeting schedule, but highly worth it for the industry.”

Weiner also saw potential in his meetings with online retailers.

“Online sales are big in China, and there are a few large players in the food and beverage online retail side of things,” he said.

While cranberries enjoy significant markets in Germany, Mexico, Australia and other foreign countries, they are relatively unfamiliar to most Chinese. Weiner said it’s not only a matter of expanding exports into China, but educating buyers and the public. In fact, CMC has commissioned research into the challenges and opportunities for cranberries in China, and expected results in April.

“The opportunity is cranberries have a solid body of research behind the health benefits of cranberry consumption,” Weiner said. “And nutrition and healthy eating is an important way of life in China.

“Dried fruit consumption is very high (in China). I think in terms of dried fruit exports to that market, utilization in the processing sector, baking sector, just for snacking – it’s a really great opportunity.”

Weiner said CMC would be following up on leads from the mission. So is Elgart, who said the trade mission was time and money well spent.

“We will be doing business in China this year with people that we met through the trade mission,” Elgart said. “I couldn’t put a number on it yet, but I’m hoping it will be substantial.”

By Kathy Gibbons, Editorial Director

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