Twelve Michigan food processing and agriculture companies will travel to Shanghai and Shenzhen, China next month on a trade mission with the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.
While state government has already taken numerous trade missions to the rapidly developing country, this trip marks the first one led by the state’s agriculture agency and the first to include Michigan-based agribusinesses.
For companies like Frankfort-based Graceland Fruit Inc., the trade mission offers an opportunity to strengthen relationships it has developed over two decades of doing business in China, while allowing it to make inroads with new customers, said Brent Bradley, vice president of sales and marketing at the company.
“Events like this really help us confirm that we have the support of the government behind us and that’s important to the larger companies there,” Bradley said. “It’s tough because when it comes to food, the Chinese are very skeptical. Traveling with the government really helps confirm those relationships we’ve had over the years.”
Graceland Fruit sells a variety of dried fruits, including blueberries, cranberries and cherries to customers in the U.S. and approximately 55 countries globally. China accounts for its largest market, representing roughly 10 percent of its total business, Bradley said.
The company, which generates between $70 million and $100 million in annual sales, employs 225 workers at its Frankfort production facility.
As China’s economy has developed, its population has demanded access to more international goods — something that Michigan agribusinesses have been quick to capitalize on over the years.
Food and agriculture exports to China have grown steadily, reaching approximately $71 million in 2015, according to data from MDARD. China now ranks third behind Canada as the top export market for Michigan agribusinesses, and state officials predict the market will only develop further.
“I think the market is phenomenal,” said Jamie Clover Adams, director of MDARD. “They have 300 million people moving into their middle class. They’re concerned about health and wellness and food safety. Fruits and vegetables are pitched in that direction. We have a good opportunity there.”
Once in China, companies attending the trade mission will engage in one-on-one “speed dating” rounds with vetted buyers to strike up possible relationships, Clover Adams said. The companies will also attend tours of retail outlets and grocery stores to learn how food products are packaged and sold in China.
Other companies such as MBG Marketing — a Grand Junction-based producer-owned blueberry marketing group — plan to use the trip as an opportunity to better understand the key players and infrastructure that exists in China.
Currently, exports to China make up a single-digit portion of the MBG’s business, but it is an area where the company expects to see substantial growth.
“We’re just dipping our toe in the water for China,” said Melanie LaPerriere, senior director of sales at Naturipe Foods LLC, an arm of MBG Marketing. “Blueberries are new for China. It’s not like you have consumers ready to buy, so it’s about education. It’s not a typical staple in their diet. Really, it’s an opportunity to introduce usage of the product and find new consumers.”
Overall, growing Michigan exports is in the best interest of the state’s economy, according to Bradley of Graceland Fruit.
“The big issue is that it does create Michigan jobs,” he said. “We’re bringing international dollars back into our economy.”