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Oregon, western states return from Asia with high hopes
Oregon, western states return from Asia with high hopes
Photo of individually wrapped broccoli in high-end Korean retail store.
Many Korean supermarkets are high-end & sophisticated.
Ag directors from 12 states visit Singapore, South Korea
Ten days split between Singapore and South Korea were enough to convince top agriculture officials from 12 western states that the Pacific Rim is the right place at the right time for the kinds of products those states can offer. The delegation included Oregon Department of Agriculture Director Katy Coba, who has just returned from the trade mission organized by the Western United States Agricultural Trade Association (WUSATA).

"This was a first-of-its-kind mission, not only for western states, but for the entire US," says Coba. "No other region of state departments of agriculture had participated in a joint mission of this size and scope. It was great for all of our western states to see what is happening in these targeted markets, and how our states individually and collectively can take advantage of market opportunities."

Eleven heads of their respective state departments of agriculture were part of the delegation. While Coba has been to Asia on behalf of Oregon agriculture several times over the years, this was the first time overseas for five of her western state counterparts. It was definitely a productive trip.

"This mission provided an education for all of us and an opportunity to sell agricultural products from the western states," says Coba.

The delegation included industry representatives and companies that were there to conduct business transactions. The first stop was Singapore, which hosted one of the world's largest food shows- a venue that filled nine halls with booths staffed by companies and organizations from around the world. Two Oregon companies were among several from the western US presenting products. ODA has a history of assisting companies that want to be part of major food shows that attract thousands of buyers.

"This show reminded us of the importance of that tool in the toolbox," says Coba. "We continue to work with companies where participating in food shows is the right fit as a market opportunity."

As a major trade hub and gateway to Southeast Asia, Singapore is vital as part of ODA's efforts to increase exports to the fast growing economies of such countries as Vietnam, the Philippines, and Malaysia. The delegation toured Singapore's vast port, the second largest container port in the world behind only Shanghai, China. With a population of only 5 million people, products exported to Singapore are primarily off-loaded and then re-shipped to other Asian countries.

Following Singapore, the delegation traveled to South Korea- one of Oregon's best trade partners. That market is especially fertile following ratification of the Korean Free Trade Agreement between the US and the Asian nation. Coba was part of the Governor's Trade Mission last September that included a stop in South Korea. But this was her first visit since the trade agreement was ratified.

"In just seven months, I saw some significant differences," says Coba. "While there remains some political sensitivity regarding the trade agreement, consumers are excited to see reduced prices on US goods that are already in the marketplace as well as the potential for new western products."

Under the Korean Free Trade Agreement, tariffs for imported US products will gradually be reduced and eliminated- good news for consumers and US agriculture. Representatives of Oregon's blueberry, wine, grass seed, and hay industries were on hand to meet with Korean buyers as were industry officials from the other western states. The response was overwhelming.

"There was more buyer interest than there was time for the meetings," says Coba. "So there will be a lot of follow-up meetings in the future. South Korea's economic growth and interest in high-quality, safe, nutritional foods- Oregon is extremely well positioned to provide those types of products to that market."

Many of the meetings resulted in actual sales, but perhaps of greater value was establishing business relationships that will last over time.

Blueberries remain the hottest ticket of them all. Last year's agreement by South Korea to allow fresh Oregon blueberries to enter the market- making Oregon the first and only state so far with approval to export fresh blueberries to South Korea- provides a huge opportunity for growers. If everything works according to plan, the first fresh blueberries from Oregon will be shipped to South Korea this summer. South Korean demand for blueberries borders on mind boggling. Considering that domestic blueberries grown on the Korean island of Cheju reportedly sell for nearly $60 a pound, Oregon growers are anxious to penetrate the market.

ODA Deputy Director Lisa Hanson was also part of the delegation and got her first look at South Korea.

"My eyes were wide open throughout the trip," she says. "I was amazed at how modern everything is, the complexity of the marketplace, and the value Koreans put on high-quality products. When I think about Oregon agriculture fitting in, being able to hit those high-end markets is our best target."

Everyone in the delegation sees value in marketing products regionally.

"It's one thing to promote Oregon agricultural products in those markets and we have been successful doing that," says Coba. "But Koreans don't necessarily know where Oregon is. We have had past success partnering with Washington on export efforts and working with Washington and California on addressing trade issues. This trip opened all of our eyes to the value of working together. There may be opportunities for all 13 western states to promote together or it may be a marriage of two or three states depending on the market and the product. We continue to see multi-state cooperation as an opportunity for all of us to expand exports."

ODA's director is not shy about praising the agency's marketing program as one of the tops not only in the west, but in the nation. But in a time of budget challenges for all states, there is a willingness to look for partnership opportunities and take advantage of marketing expertise- something Oregon is happy to share with the other western states.

For more information, contact Bruce Pokarney at (503) 986-4559.

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