If you’ve been to Ford Field for a Detroit Lions game over the years, you’ve probably smelled the sweet scent of Nancy Niezgocki’s roasted almonds swirling through the concourse. Now, she’s hoping that intoxicating smell will be enticing to consumers half-way around the world.
"This is our first big venture into the export market," says Niezgocki, who has run Michigan's Beverly Hills-based Old World Style Almonds
with her husband, Bruce, since 1984. Their product--almonds kettle roasted with sugar, cinnamon, water and vanilla--is sold at nearly 30 venues throughout the nation and in Canada. "It’s a big step for us, but we’ve done our homework."
Old World Almonds is one of seven Michigan businesses--from craft beer brewers to fruit growers--heading to China on a trade mission organized by the Michigan Department of Agriculture & Rural Development
(MDARD) and led by Director Jamie Clover Adams.
The trip, running from Nov. 8 to Nov. 14 in the cities of Shanghai and Shenzhen, is meant to introduce vendors and buyers there to Michigan-based agricultural products and assorted value added goods, while assisting those businesses in developing and deepening their international market reach.
"China's middle-class is exploding, and with it, their understanding of Western food and culture," says Jamie Zmitko-Somers, international marketing manager with MDARD. "It just makes sense to expose this burgeoning market to the diversity of Michigan-based foods and value-added products."
Michigan food and agriculture exports to China grew an incredible 897 percent from 2009 to last year, when the value of exports reached a record $71 million. Top demand products were soybeans, and a host of dried and fresh fruit items, along with spirits such as beer and wine.
The safety of Michigan food products is also attractive to Chinese consumers, who are all too familiar with food safety scares in a nation that just recently formed a regulatory framework to monitor food safety, says Zmitko-Somers.
Chinese consumers also give foreign-grown produce as a sign that they care. "Gift-giving is a big part of Chinese culture," she says. "It’s a sort of status symbol to be able to give a gift that was grown or produced overseas to a friend of loved one."
Though there are large growing markets in China for Michigan food and agricultural goods, exports to that country are only a tiny slice of Michigan’s entire export pie. Almost 60 percent of all food and agricultural export products head to Canada, the state’s largest export market. Mexico, with its high demand for Michigan black beans and other products, comes in second. China, Japan and South Korea round out the third, fourth and fifth top export nations, respectively, as they are high-demand buyers of soybeans for tofu, soy sauce, and other products.
All told, Michigan food and agricultural products were exported to 114 nations in 2015. The diversity of the state’s food-commodity profile--with 300 raw products that can be produced or refined into a wide-assortment of consumer goods grown or produced here annually, from dairy products to potatoes for potato chips to dried cherries and blueberries and fresh apples--puts the state in a unique position to grow its agricultural export market share, says MDARD Director Jamie Clover Adams.
"Ninety-five percent of the world’s population lives outside the United States, and we grow a lot of food here. We have to trade," she says. "The diverse types of food and agricultural items grown and produced in Michigan puts the state in a unique position to meet demand for our products around the world."
Michigan food growers and producers are not alone if they have a desire to branch out into international markets, Clover Adams says. MDARD hosts seminars and conferences to provide more information to those interested in broadening their products' global reach, as well as offering market research into consumer demand for a variety of Michigan products.
Clover Adams also points to the job-creating aspect of increasing exports of Michigan food and agricultural products. "Companies doing more business overseas means more jobs here as demand grows," she says.
Niezgocki certainly hopes it is.
She currently employs almost 30 workers in various roles of her roasted almond business’s Livonia production facility: five full-time, two are part-time, and 20 contractors from Jewish Vocational Services, which assists veterans, seniors, special-needs and developmentally disabled adults and others with obtaining jobs.
"If all goes well, and we wind-up seeing more business as a result of this trip, I will absolutely be hiring more people," she says. "Right now we are maxed-out. We don’t need to grow, but we want to. I see it as a job creator."
If it wasn’t for MDARD, and the assistance the office provided to her firm, Niezgocki says she doesn’t know if she would have made the leap overseas, she says.
"They were very helpful with market research and branding ideas. We were the ones who needed to interpret it for ourselves, but they are forthcoming about the potential we have and aggressive in terms of making sure we are well represented there," she says. "This looks like the perfect opportunity for our product, but this is going to be a test."
Chris Killian has been a writer and journalist in the Kalamazoo area for over 10 years. His work has been published in multiple local publications, including the Kalamazoo Gazette and WMUK. You can find more about Killian, his work, and projects he’s working on by visiting chriskillian.net.
This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development
. Read more in the series here