Potato commissions & ag directors return from trade mission
Oregon and Washington have teamed up to promote Pacific Northwest potatoes in Southeast Asia and conduct early market development in Vietnam, Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macao. Potato commissions and state agriculture directors from Oregon and Washington returned encouraged after this month's trade mission that could lead to great opportunities for many food crops.
"This was a very productive mission, but there is a lot of followup work to do," says Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba, who was joined on the mission by Dan Newhouse, director of the Washington State Department of Agriculture. "I give a great deal of credit to the potato industry and the commissions for conducting a joint Oregon-Washington trade mission, and inviting the directors of agriculture from both states. We think pooling resources and efforts is the way to go. You get more bang for your buck. Having the two states together gives us much more of a presence, particularly when our states' agriculture is similar. The market itself doesn't see any difference between the two states."
Funded by a USDA Specialty Crop Block Grant, the trade mission followed up a similar trip two years ago, combining the efforts of both states in Taiwan, the Philippines, and Hong Kong. This mission included a stop in Hong Kong, but also focused on relatively new markets centrally located to a huge population of potential consumers.
"Half of the world's population lives within a five hour plane ride of this region, so it's clearly an area of market influence and dominance," says ODA Assistant Director Dalton Hobbs, also a member of the trade delegation. "It is a region of great potential for Pacific Northwest agriculture. This kind of mission is an appropriate way to tap that potential through early trade development activities, jointly conducted by the private sector and government, to introduce products and identify trade channels."
While more established export markets such as Japan, China, and South Korea continue to be primary destinations for Oregon products- each were part of a September trade mission that included Director Coba and Governor Kitzhaber- the potato industry is highly motivated to develop a market in Southeast Asia and its success could pave the way for others.
As with real estate, success in marketing agriculture largely depends on one overriding factor.
"It's location, location, location," says Hobbs. "These four markets we visited benefit from their proximity to so many people. It's what sets them apart."
The trade mission's first stop was Singapore which, like Hong Kong, is a major distribution hub for agricultural exports. Singapore's population is similar to Oregon's, but it has a land mass the size of Marion County. A sophisticated and mature market, emphasis there was placed on reaching the food service sector because of the numerous four and five-star hotels and restaurants located in Singapore.
The next stop was Vietnam, a largely unexplored market for Oregon agriculture. With a population of more than 70 million- about twice the size of South Korea- the country is rapidly making the transition that other Asian markets did 10 or 15 years ago.
"Vietnam is on the verge of moving to a well developed country, " says Hobbs. "There are no McDonald's in Vietnam yet, but there probably will be soon. We see a very young population base with a large percentage under the age of 25. These energetic consumers will be looking for quality foods and enhanced products that come from the United States. So for us, we believe this is the right place at the right time."
The delegation toured modern retail outlets in Ho Chi Minh City, including a grocery store similar to Winco in the US. It was easy to envision a Vietnamese housewife grabbing a bag of fresh Pacific Northwest potatoes and putting it into her shopping cart. Vietnam recently opened its market for fresh potatoes.
Next up was Macao, a Special Administrative District of China. It is the world's largest gambling center with more than $26 billion annual revenue- larger than the gambling revenue of the entire US. With 50,000 hotel rooms and numerous casinos, food service in Macao is a prime target for Pacific Northwest food products.
The delegation then traveled by ferry from Macao to Hong Kong, where Oregon has already established strong ties. Hong Kong is one of Oregon's top ten trading partners. The stopover was to further establish relationships and emphasize the benefits of Pacific Northwest potatoes, presenting novel uses of fresh potatoes to up and coming culinary students at the Hong Kong Vocational Institute.
"We weren't introducing something totally new to Southeast Asia," says Hobbs. "They understand potatoes and even grow some of them. But it's about our potatoes. They can't grow the high solids, high quality potatoes that are especially attractive in a food processing or food service setting where portion control, quality, and appearance are so important to the end product. Even with shipping costs, we can deliver high quality potatoes into these markets at about the same price as locally produced potatoes."
Chef Leif Benson, a trade show veteran who has conducted many product demonstrations on behalf of Oregon's potato industry, was once again on hand during the trade mission to help with the promotion.
Directors Coba and Newhouse added value to the trip by elevating the attention given by local officials, retailers, and wholesalers just because of the status afforded US and state government officials.
"Having an ag director along raises the profile of the mission," says Coba. "We got better attendance and response from the people the potato commissions wanted to reach."
Largely a reconnaissance mission, the November trade mission could lead to test shipments of potatoes to these Southeast Asia markets in the next year. The real value, however, may come from establishing a blueprint for other commodities grown in both Oregon and Washington.
"This was groundbreaking work by the potato industry to recognize that both states are in the same boat," says Coba. "Collaboratively, we can do market development work that we can't do individually. That's a great recipe for other specialty crops grown in our respective states."
For more information, contact Dalton Hobbs at (503) 872-6600.
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