Michigan sells more produce to international markets

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LANSING — France is the culinary capital of the world. It is home to such exotic dishes as foie gras, bouillabaisse, ratatouille … and Michigan dried cherries?

Michigan companies, in concert with state government, are working to develop broader markets for their food products, traveling to Europe and Asia to introduce them to new audiences.

The efforts appear to be working. According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, Michigan’s total agricultural exports rose from $836 million in 2003 to more than $1.2 billion in 2007 — an increase of 48 percent, slightly greater than the rate of the country as a whole. Figures for 2008 will be available in June.

The biggest exports were soybeans and soybean products, worth $290 million; feed, grains and products, worth $242 million; and fruits and fruit preparation, worth $122 million.

Fruit products are also the fastest-growing export, as their exports more than doubled between 2003 and 2007: from $49 million to $122 million.

The export sales manager for Shoreline Fruit Growers Inc., a Traverse City-based company that specializes in dried fruit products, described what his company is doing to develop new markets.

“Our main sales are still here in the U.S., but we’re actively pursuing those international sales,” said Joe Lothamer, who is based in Lansing.

Despite the technological conveniences that have made international marketing easier, personal contact is the key to success, Lothamer said.

“You’ve got to shake hands with them. You’ve got to go out to dinner with them,” he said.

And Michigan companies have been doing plenty of both. In March, representatives of Shoreline and three other companies — Graceland Fruit Inc. of Frankfort, Koeze Co. of Grand Rapids and Cherry Marketing Institute Inc. of DeWitt — traveled to Foodex Japan, Asia’s largest food show. The trip was organized by the development division of the state Department of Agriculture.

It is only one of many state efforts to grow international markets, said Jamie Zmitko-Somers, the division’s international marketing manager.

“We work in partnership with a nonprofit organization out of Chicago,” the Food Export Association of the Midwest USA, she said.

Together, her division and Food Export organize buyers’ missions and trade missions, develop informational materials such as an online directory of trade leads, and conduct marketing research for small companies.

Currently, Zmitko-Somers is focusing on the Philippines, where the division and Michigan State University researchers are seeking opportunities for growers to sell their cherries, blueberries and apples as ingredients for that country’s bakers.

“We have a trade mission with Food Export planned for August,” Zmitko-Somers said. While Michigan companies meet with Filipino importers and distributors, a chef will be preparing products using the products they hope to sell.

Lothamer said there is room for better recognition of Michigan’s agricultural capabilities.

“There is recognition that Michigan has a fruit industry, but that’s about all they know, right there,” he said. Lothamer uses varied methods — from as simple as carrying along maps to show where he’s from, to as complex as flying in customers to experience Michigan for themselves — in order to build business relationships.

Giving potential customers a tour of Traverse City’s orchards and showing them the Lake Michigan shoreline and sand dunes creates an emotional connection and a genuine appreciation for the state, he said.

Both Lothamer and Zmitko-Somers said that, despite occasional hitches, communication among different cultures and even languages goes smoothly.

“Overall, business internationally is conducted in a very polite manner,” Lothamer said.

“It certainly is a challenge some days,” said Zmitko-Somers. She said that companies are most successful when they educate themselves about small differences, such as whether the other country’s representatives will want to discuss personal lives before “getting down to business,” or variations in how promptly meetings start and end.

Lothamer said that, far more than cultural or communications issues, it’s trade barriers that make his job more difficult.

“The main challenge is dealing with every country’s different regulations and the tariffs they put on the products,” he said. He has seen a great deal of interest from South Korea buyers, for example, but hasn’t finalized a deal because that country’s tariffs are too high for importing Michigan products to be economical, he said.

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