An Outsider's Inside View of a China Trade Mission

Jessy Sielski, Deputy Public Information Officer, MDARD

With only a few regrettable exceptions, I have never been a big risk-taker. And on the rare occasion I have time to travel, it’s almost always to a warm beach, with a rum drink in my hand, a mediocre horror novel in my back pocket, and zero responsibilities on my shoulders. So, when I found myself in China and South Korea on a trade mission with several Michigan food and agriculture entrepreneurs (or “agripreneurs,” if you will)—some of whom looked like they were young enough to be my kids—I couldn’t help but be impressed by their relentless drive, their competitive vision, their exceptional business acumen, and their infectious enthusiasm.

Take Juliette King-McAvoy of King Orchards, Inc., for example. Somehow, this newlywed dynamo managed to squeeze in an eight-day, international trade mission between her wedding and her honeymoon. (And I mean that quite literally. Seconds after she shook hands with her last South Korean buyer, she was seen dashing out of the hotel to meet her husband at the airport, where they would leave for their honeymoon on another continent just a few hours later.)

During a rare break between meetings, Juliette explained to me that even though King Orchards enjoys a sizeable market in the US, Canada and the UK, this family-owned business is pursuing additional export markets in China and South Korea, believing the business’s future security lies in market diversity.

Juliette King-McAvoy of King Orchards answers questions about tart cherries and other products with potential buyers.“It’s great to have the partners and buyers we have now, but if something out of our control interrupted or ended even one of those, it would have a significant impact on our business,” she said. “That’s one of the reasons we are working to broaden our export market even more.”

Also helping to set the pace for the Michigan crew were Detroit’s Scott and Suzi Owens of Scotty O’Hotty hot sauces. “Do a little research or have an idea of where you want to expand your market and then get out there and go,” said Suzi in this video interview “You can’t experience it through the internet. Even though those things are great, you have to physically come here…and talk to people and see the town and suck up the culture.”

Scott and Suzi are also co-founders of Feast Detroit, an innovative project that serves as a processing center for the owners’ products, but also is open to other area food entrepreneurs for processing, co-packing, recipe development, and cooperative buying. You can read more in this Detroit Free Press article.

Market tours, translators, local guides, shuttle busses, bullet trains, airplanes, hotels, and meetings with vetted buyers are all taken care of. There was hardly a wasted movement during our entire trip, which ran like a well-oiled machine. (Except for the time I snuck off to a Starbucks and was left behind by the shuttle bus in downtown Seoul—making me the butt of a running joke for the remainder of the trip.) 

Scott and Suzi Owens of Scotty O'Hotty hot sauces examine the packaging and labeling of comparable Chinese hot sauces.The China leg of the trade mission was led by MDARD Director Jamie Clover Adams and the incredible staff of MDARD’s International Marketing program. Working with their partner Food Export Midwest, those who participated in the China trip had the opportunity to extend their mission to South Korea. Through MDARD’s International Marketing program, Michigan food and agriculture companies can start or expand their exporting efforts with impressive personal attention. In addition to having direct access to industry experts and personalized service, companies that participate in these trade missions enjoy pre-arranged meetings at USDA Agricultural Trade Offices, where they get rare, first-hand insights into the local consumer markets from trade office officials, researchers, and local marketing professionals.

During the market tours, the group was able to do some first-hand research of their own, examining consumer behavior, exploring innovative operations, speaking with owners, and—of course—studying the branding, ingredients, and trends of their shelf-space competition.

“They took us to several grocery stores here in China, and it was a really big eye opener for us,” said Scott Owens. “That’s very good ammunition for us. It was good market research. I was really shocked at how much we got out of going to these grocery stores. We’re going to make some tweaks [to our packaging] that will propel us here in the Chinese market.”

Pam Miller, representing United Hops Brokerage of Greenville, MI, studies the craft brew offerings in a Shanghai market.While I was proudly basking in my successful use of Google Translator to order a meal at a Korean Outback Steakhouse the night before, my travel companions were spending full days meeting with a host of vetted buyers, educating them about their products, describing business operations, providing samples, getting feedback, crunching numbers, building relationships, and negotiating business deals worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.

And on this particular trip, participants had the rare opportunity to hear from—and personally meet with—buyers from Alibaba, arguably the world’s largest e-commerce, retail, Internet, AI and technology conglomerate in the world, surpassing even Walmart, eBay and Amazon. No big deal.

As daunting as an Asian trade mission seemed to me initially, I soon learned why these folks were so eager to test the waters. During one of our market tours, I had a conversation with Alecha Benson-Lockhart of Nirvana Tea (now on their second China trade mission with MDARD), couldn’t say enough about what the program and its staff have done to open doors for her tea company. “The International Marketing Program staff and resources have been absolutely invaluable through this whole process,” she said. “I'm especially grateful for Jamie Zmitko-Somers who pointed us to MDARD. I don’t know that I would have considered exporting to China starting out had it not been for her. Jamie is incredibly knowledgeable, answering all my questions regarding being export ready. Jamie is committed to preparing small businesses for export success. Her confidence in the trade missions made me confident.”

Bruce Byl, president of Herkner Farms in Traverse City, talks numbers and logistics with an Alibaba representative.Getting access to one of the largest consumer markets in the world isn’t easy, but having had the opportunity to tag along with an incredible group of Michigan businesses and the experienced International Marketing staff, it’s easy to see why more and more Michigan food and ag businesses are turning to them when they want to take their businesses to the next level.

If you want to see what all the hubbub is about, or if you’re ready to take your food or ag business to the next level too, visit http://www.michigan.gov/agexport or contact Jamie Zmitko-Somers at 517-284-5738 or zmitkoj@michigan.gov today!


China Trade Mission Participants: Shoreline Fruit Growers, Inc., Nirvana Tea, Inc., Graceland Fruit, Cherry Marketing Institute, and Cherry Central; Scotty O’Hotty, an award-winning hot sauce based in the Detroit area; Herkner Farms, a Traverse City producer of fruit toppings, condiments, jams, preserves, and sauces; King Orchards, Inc., a first-generation grower and producer based in Central Lake, specializing in Montmorency tart cherries and tart cherry juice, as well as Balaton cherries, black sweet cherries, apples, peaches, pears, apricots, plums and nectarines; and United Hops Brokerage, a Greenville-based broker and processor, connecting brewers with a wide variety of hops growers.