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Small WA Businesses Meet Big Potential Customers

PHOTO: The Washington Dept. of Agriculture arranges trade meetings for local food and wine producers  with buyers from other countries. Here, Claar Cellars' Tom Mackenzie meets with buyers from Mexico. Courtesy Washington Dept. of Agriculture.
PHOTO: The Washington Dept. of Agriculture arranges trade meetings for local food and wine producers with buyers from other countries. Here, Claar Cellars' Tom Mackenzie meets with buyers from Mexico. Courtesy Washington Dept. of Agriculture.
September 9, 2013

SEATTLE - It's the chance of a lifetime for a local business to get international exposure - but it's also a lot of hard work. Today, buyers from China, Japan, Korea and Mexico are in Seattle to taste the wares of 44 specialty food companies and wineries from around the state. The goal is to start building relationships that will be profitable for both the company and the foreign importer.

The Washington Department of Agriculture sponsors these trade-building meetings. Julie Johnson, the department's international marketing export development lead, said the list showcases the diversity of local products.

"We have frozen berry companies; we have confection companies and a company that does pickles; organic applesauce; seasonings - and then wine. It's a really wide variety," Johnson said.

Every company sets up a table, explained Johnson, and buyers spend about 20 minutes with each of them, tasting the products and talking about what they're looking for.

Milbrandt Vineyards in tiny Mattawa, Wash., now exports to Sweden and other countries as a result of these meetings. Co-owner Butch Milbrandt said his winery can sell plenty of wine in the U.S., but they want to build an international reputation. This week's tasting and hand-shakes are the start of a long process, Milbrandt said.

"The follow-up takes nearly two years - emailing back and forth, sending samples, negotiating pricing and shipping," Milbrandt explained. "It takes a long time; it's a long distance. If it wasn't for the support that we receive from the federal and state entities, it would be very, very difficult for us."

Milbrandt pointed to a number of resources for small to medium-sized businesses that want to export, and said the state Agriculture Department or Western United States Trade Association are good places to start.

Many of the companies in this week's meetings also attended export clinics held this spring by the Ag Department, to learn more about the markets they are pitching to. Johnson said their aim is to arrange a good match between buyer and seller.

"It's very exciting. It's all about the companies and the buyers building relationships. It may take several meetings for that to actually happen, but when a deal happens, it's very exciting," Johnson said.

Last year, the Agriculture Department estimated it helped more than 200 small businesses make international sales totaling $120 million.


Chris Thomas, Public News Service - WA