World Ag Expo: Exports reap profits for California farmers

Posted at 11:21 PM on Tuesday, Feb. 08, 2011
By Robert Rodriguez / The Fresno Bee Share

TULARE -- Exports can be the lifeblood for California agriculture, but accessing those markets requires patience, a commitment to quality, and an understanding of what consumers want, said several experts at this year's World Ag Expo.

The state exported $13 billion worth of agricultural products in 2008, with about one-third coming from fruit and nut growers.

And for those agriculture companies that have succeeded, the rewards can be great.

Walnut grower and processor Don Barton, president of Gold River Orchard in Oakdale, has taken his family-run company from a nascent exporter six years ago to one that now ships 90% of its nuts overseas.

"We have become an export company; it's our focus and it's what we do," Barton said. Gold River exports to 20 countries.

Several panel discussions on the export market have been organized during the expo, which is expected to attract more than 100,000 visitors by the time it ends Thursday.

Global trade experts say that one of the keys to thriving in the export market is having an unflinching commitment to quality.

International buyers don't want to risk becoming involved in a food-borne illness outbreak, and as a result can have very high standards.

Mark Benjamin, a trader and broker for Kenkko Commodities, one of Europe's major buyers of nuts, seeds and dried fruit, said importers look at several factors, including a company's reputation, its food-safety policies, and its financial stability.

"There is nothing worse than being told they have a state-of-the-art packinghouse only to find out after traveling halfway around the world that it's a wood shed in a backyard," Benjamin said.

U.S. farmers and food companies are also increasingly being asked to demonstrate that they run their operations in ethical ways, such as by providing workers with a living wage, and that they operate using methods that don't harm the environment.

Benjamin admits that satisfying some foreign buyers is not easy, and he urged those considering exporting to pay close attention to what their customers want.

Sources of frustration for some California companies are the variety of methods used to certify safe food-handling procedures, and the pressure to be price competitive.

"Some buyers are pushing for the top quality, but they want to pay you the price that they get from our cheaper-priced competitors," said Chuck DeGeneres, who handles export sales for Sun Valley Raisins in Fresno.

Raisins are among the Valley crops that have grown dependent on exports. About one-third of the crop is shipped overseas. Other major California crops exported include almonds, walnuts, grapes, tree fruit, pistachios and strawberries.

While many in farming believe China's burgeoning middle class makes that country a top export destination, other countries also show promise, said C. Parr Rosson, a professor at Texas A&M.

Rosson, an expert on trade with Cuba, said that for the short term Cuba represents a potential export market for fresh fruits and vegetables. The island's growing tourism industry needs high-quality produce, which California can provide.

Canadians account for about 40% of all tourists visiting Cuba. Rosson estimated that about half a million Canadians visited Cuba last year.

Changes in U.S. policies have allowed Cubans living in the U.S. to send more money to their native country, providing some with more disposable income. Cuba has also allowed its people to stay in selected tourist hotels.

Although U.S. exports to Cuba are banned, there are exceptions. Food, medicine and forestry materials were allowed beginning in 2000.

Almond grower Mike Harms of Porterville is intrigued by the prospect of selling almonds to Cuba.

"Exports have become such a huge issue for us that I think it is worth taking a look at trying to do business with Cuba," Harms said. "We are trying to make inroads into China and India, and I think Cuba also shows some promise."

The reporter can be reached at or (559) 441-6327. ... under.html