GRAND RAPIDS — West Michigan and the Netherlands share much more than a common ancestry and many familiar family and city names.
But the point of a mid-October visit from a member of the Dutch embassy was to identify more ways for the two to do more together on an economic level.
That idea came to Martin Olde Monnikhof, agricultural counselor for Netherlands in the U.S., when he reviewed the trade data between Michigan and the Netherlands. Despite its strong Dutch heritage, the state was below average in the amount of exports it sent to the Netherlands, with about $400 million in exports. The state imported almost the same amount in goods from the country.
“I know that Michigan is famous for its food processing industry, and of the exports to the Netherlands from Michigan, only 4 percent was processed food. That’s not a lot,” Monnikhof said. “In my eyes, it can be much more.”
Monnikhof’s one-and-a-half day visit, arranged by The Right Place Inc., helped to uncover more trade opportunities between the country and the region.
In his official responsibilities, Monnikhof’s role includes reporting back to the Netherlands about the impact of U.S. policies such as the farm bill on international trade, working to reduce trade barriers between the U.S. and the Netherlands, and increasing the bilateral agricultural trade between the two countries.
“That’s a huge task because there are still a lot of barriers for agricultural products entering the United States and also the other way around,” he said.
The Netherlands is the second-largest global exporter of agricultural products with $101 billion in trade, and is behind only the U.S., which exported $158 billion in 2011. As two of the largest global players in the food business, Monnikhof said each partner brings to the table many opportunities for trade.
Much of the country’s trade with the U.S. is focused on the East and West Coasts, and not particularly in the Midwest, he said.
The visit to West Michigan aimed to address that. He met with a handful of agribusinesses across the region to learn firsthand about the farming and food processing industries and to look for opportunities for bilateral trade.
“In the Netherlands, we are used to export,” Monnikhof said. “But sometimes you also have to draw attention. You have to find opportunities.”
Monnikhof’s itinerary in West Michigan included:
• Den Dulk Diary Farms in Ravenna for a meeting with owners Tim and Marietta Den Dulk. “I was really impressed by that guy,” Monnikhof said of Den Dulk. “He is a big business man. … He really convinced me there is a bright future for dairy here in Michigan.” Den Dulk’s operation also deals a lot with Dutch technology and looks to add more automation, he said.
• Continental Dairy in Coopersville, the company that converted a massive former Delphi manufacturing facility into a milk processing plant. “That’s an eye-opener for me,” Monnikhof said.
• Turkey producer Sietsema Farms in Allendale, where Monnikhof met with owner Harley Sietsema. In the Netherlands, “turkey is not a big item,” he said, noting that laws currently bar the import of poultry into the country.
• The “quite sophisticated and modern” Michigan Turkey Producers Cooperative in Grand Rapids.
• Sunrise Acres Egg Farm in Hudsonville, where he said he discussed some of the animal welfare trends with owner Dick Patmos.
• Zeeland Farm Services, the large soybean producer and bio-ethanol maker based in Zeeland.
• Masterpiece Flower Company LLC in Byron Center, which Monnikhof noted uses Dutch technology.
Speaking with MiBiz just after the tour, Monnikhof said he sees opportunities for Dutch firms to export products and technology to West Michigan, particularly related to greenhouse technology, animal welfare and automation systems.
“There are some industries in the Netherlands that could be interested in some of the products in the food processing industry here,” he said. “I was amazed, for example, that Zeeland Farm Services is exporting all over the world … but not … to the European Union. There must be some low-hanging fruit in that field.”
Monnikhof also met with a handful of scientists at Michigan State University to discuss the school’s agricultural research capabilities, as well as to explore the potential to exchange students.
“Now I know what’s going on here,” he said. “It would be great if we could create a kind of delegation from Western Michigan to Holland not only in the field of agriculture, but a little bit wider.
“It’s easier to do business with people from Michigan, for example, than with some people in the western states. The mentality is closer here to the Dutch business mentality. … I think there are a lot of opportunities, really. … The Netherlands and the United States have a lot in common. We have a lot of shared values and a long, shared history.”
While Monnikhof said he learned a great deal about the region, he said the region felt very familiar to him — beyond just the Dutch names. He said he hopes to continue building the relationship with Michigan over time, and while trade relationships are tough to predict, he said he’s optimistic about the future potential.
“You have to offer a lot. We have to offer a lot,” he said. “Let’s try to come together.”
Editor’s note: This story has been changed from its original form. The previous version included some inaccurate trade figures.