When this all started, it was about taking the first step of a long haul. And as Jamie Clover Adams returned from her seventh trade trip to China, Michigan is beginning to see fruits of the effort ripen. It was the second trade trip she led exclusively for agricultural trade.
“I think relationships are being solidified,” said Clover Adams, Director of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD). “We always have to work on those, and what the Governor has done in China has really benefitted, not only the auto industry but the agriculture sector too. Seeing the reception we get and the number of (Chinese) buyers at our events, I think we’re seeing new opportunities. There is a demand for tart cherries, in particular, because they view our products as high-quality, and that’s what they want and value.”
Since the Governor’s first trade mission, there are new trade factors, such as the development of on-line marketer Ali Baba, that changes the way Michigan markets its tart cherries in the Orient.
“It’s interesting that in both China and Korea, consumers want smaller packaging,” Clover Adams said. “We’re used to the big bulk items you can buy in places like Walmart, but they want smaller. The advantage we have is that they’re willing to pay what we would pay for larger quantities.”
Packaging is one thing. Proving Michigan’s quality and diversity is another.
“In China, one night we had dinner at an Italian restaurant with our cherry growers and Chinese buyers,” she said. “The chef used Michigan tart cherries in every dish, and that helped the buyer see what we can do. China grows mostly sweets, so tarts are a new experience for them. The chef came to the table and was told just how much everyone enjoyed the meals. He said he’ll continue to use them in his dishes, and that was neat to see.”
Even neater is the fact that at least one company, King Orchards, made a sale during the trip.
“We had one customer take a couple pallets of (tart cherry juice) concentrate,” said John King, co-owner of King Orchards. “It was a one-time sale, but we were encouraged, especially from the side-trips to Korea and Taiwan. They have a strong interest in healthy eating and natural products and juice – lots of juice.”
King said he hopes that sale leads to more opportunities, and said his daughter Juliette King-McAvoy, who went on the trip, told him that “there are endless opportunities and lots of work.”
When the Chinese begin to embrace tart cherries as they have cranberries, Clover Adams said, trade barriers begin to break down.
“Our companies still have to get permission for their products to come into China,” she said. “We can get apples in, but blueberries and other products, such as meat sticks, still have barriers. Logistically, we have to get the products there, and importantly, we have to keep the content current on company websites.”
Admitting that that can be another challenge, particularly for smaller companies, Clover Adams stressed just how important a website can be to keeping relationships going.
“Chinese consumers want history, they want content,” she said. “They want a relationship, just like when we go there. They want to know us.”
By returning to China and meeting with some of the same people they met before, the long-haul effort grows roots.
“It took a decade to get the Chinese public used to putting cranberries in dishes, so if we’re patient, opportunities will open,” she said.
Michigan Farm Bureau also recently saw the opportunity for relationship-building with the Chinese. As part of a three-week tour that included visits to MSU, MMPA and MDARD to talk about food safety and emergency management in agriculture, the delegation visited the Farm Bureau Center.
“We talked quite a bit about risk management,” said Ernie Birchmeier, livestock and dairy specialist with Michigan Farm Bureau. “They were interested in learning how we use crop insurance. We’ve gotten ahead of the game to get protected before something happens, and they still ask for assistance after something has happened,” he said. “I think they learned a lot about how we use insurance, and we learned from them, too. Any time you have communication, we can all learn from each other.”
When conversations take place, opportunities arise, Clover Adams said. And when she sees the relationships bear fruit, it’s fun.
“It’s fun to watch our companies when they see their products in the marketplace or as ingredients at restaurants,” she said. “
This is the second time we took Michigan companies with us, and the delegation was twice the size of last year. Next year, we hope there will be even more.”
For King Orchards, the trip is already bringing at least potential for more sales, even before Juliette returns.
“I’ve already had a phone call for samples,” King said. “We’re excited, but don’t really know yet. But we know that it is about building relationships, and we can’t do it from here. It’s why we went to China, to talk to them in person.”