Food industry tests international waters Exports: Maryland farmers, food processors and agricultural officials gather to learn about the benefits of selling their products abroad.

July 20, 1996|By Ted Shelsby | Ted Shelsby,SUN STAFF

It's a big world and somebody has to feed it.

That was theme of an all-day conference at the World Trade Center yesterday as about 200 Maryland farmers, food processors and agriculture officials gathered to discuss the whys, how-tos and projected benefits of marketing food products abroad.

Eugene Moos, undersecretary of the U.S. Department of Agriculture, captured the ears of the lunchtime audience when he said 96 percent of the world's consumers live outside the United States.

"Think about that," Moos said. A few minutes later, he told the group that U.S. food exports have risen 50 percent over the past three years and that U.S. food exports are growing at a rate four times faster than domestic sales.

The conference was arranged by Sen. Paul Sarbanes to encourage farmers and agribusinesses to put aside their fears and make the leap into the international market to boost sales.

The Maryland Democrat arranged for about a dozen of the Foreign Agriculture Service's diplomats from such countries as Russia, China, Germany, France, Japan and Mexico to spend a day in Baltimore to advise Marylanders on ways to tap into the world market. The attaches had returned from their posts this week for a global export conference in Washington.

The possibilities are almost unlimited, said August Schumacher Jr., head of the USDA's export office.

As an example, he said poultry plants that had been selling chicken feet for 2 cents a pound for use in fertilizer have discovered that they are a delicacy in China.

"I've seen Perdue [Farms Inc.] chicken feet priced at 80 cents a pound in Beijing," he said.

It was a tidbit of information that could make or break a marginal poultry plant in an industry where the competition is severe.

It was just the kind of tip that state Agriculture Secretary Lewis R. Riley had hoped the conference would produce.

"We are here to exchange ideas and information on ways to export more Maryland agriculture products," he said in a luncheon speech.

Scott R. Reynolds, director of the USDA's agriculture trade office in Shanghai, offered a number of other suggestions for tapping into a potentially huge China market.

He advised companies to limit their export efforts to a few large cities -- Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou -- where, in sharp contrast to the rest of the country, 95 percent of the homes have refrigerators.

Even more important, he said, those cities have supermarkets.

He said Shanghai is having a construction boom and there are 100 million people with the money and an eagerness to buy U.S. food products.

In addition to poultry products, Reynolds said Shanghai could be a big market for Maryland seafoods. "They love to treat their guest to a 10-course seafood dinner," he said.

Reynolds advised processors, if possible, to add a touch of Asian flavor to their products. He told the audience that Blue Diamond Co., a California company selling nuts, made a fortune in China by coming up with a fish-flavored almond.

"They like seafood," he said. "It was a smart move."

Selling abroad won't come easy, cautioned Leon Gleaves, vice president of marketing at Wilkins-Rogers Inc. a bakery products company in Ellicott City. But he said the rewards can be big.

"Be persistent," Gleaves said. "Don't give up. Don't become discouraged. It might take a long time."

He also advised potential exporters to link up with "a good distributor, someone who is excited about your products and someone you can have good communications with."

Maryland's agriculture exports totaled $177 million last year, according to Errol Small, head of the Maryland Department of Agriculture's export program. He said that was an increase of about 25 percent over 1994.

He said poultry products accounted for about $58 million of the total and were the state's largest agriculture export.

According to Riley, about 300 Maryland companies export their food products. They include such giants as Perdue and Giant Foods Inc. and smaller companies like M&I Seafood in Crisfield and E.E.W. Friel Co. in Queenstown.

Pub Date: 7/20/96

Baltimore Sun Articles
Please note the green-lined linked article text has been applied commercially without any involvement from our newsroom editors, reporters or any other editorial staff.