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International market hard to pierce for W.Va. food makers

By Laura Reston

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- West Virginia food producers often do not have the knowledge and expertise that they need to foray into the international market, participants at a roundtable discussion said Thursday.

Meanwhile, the limited production capacity of small businesses can deter international wholesalers. International labeling, tariffs and quotas also can leave producers unsure about how to export their goods.

For example, Stacy Kasun, co-owner of Uncle Bunk's, a pickle and condiment store based in Sistersville, struggles to run her business and overcome the hurdles she faces when attempting to export her products.

Although Kasun had an export deal with a Japanese company a few years ago, she said she simply does not have the time to cultivate and maintain overseas relationships when she has to run a company at home.

On Wednesday, participants at the roundtable discussion, which was organized by the Charleston Area Alliance, outlined the obstacles faced by local entrepreneurs who want to export agricultural and specialty food products abroad.

Representatives from the International Trade Division, Small Business Development Center, U.S. Export Assistance Center, Natural Capital Investment Fund and several specialty food businesses attended the roundtable.

Given the barriers producers and business owners face, Earl F. Gohl, federal co-chairman of the Appalachian Regional Commission, acknowledged that he originally was skeptical about programs that aim to encourage exports among local entrepreneurs like Kasun.

On a trip to Birmingham, Ala., though, Gohl talked to a candy manufacturer who produces sweets for amusement parks. According to Gohl, 20 percent of the company's revenue comes from exports.

He realized that encouraging exports from local farmers and producers had the potential to make real economic headway and spur economic growth in Appalachia.

In fact, international demand for West Virginian products -- particularly jams, jellies and health foods -- clearly exists, roundtable participants said.

They said countries such as Panama and Colombia are most receptive to exports from West Virginia. Furthermore, countries such as Brazil, Chile and Mexico, which have expanding middle classes and increasing disposable wealth, also have been good markets for West Virginian products.

The USDA and its partner organizations have initiated a slew of programs designed to usher local producers through the complex process required to export their goods. Such programs provide outreach, education and pre-qualification assistance for local entrepreneurs.

For many entrepreneurs struggling to move into the international market, though, these resources might not be enough.

"West Virginia needs a specialty food manufacturers' association," Kasun said.

Such a program would offer more opportunities for local producers to learn about techniques to sell their products abroad.

"Everything we do comes back to the same theme," Gohl said. "If we can figure out how to work together, we have a much better chance of working through the barriers."

The panel concluded a three-day "Foodways Tour" to highlight the economic potential of local food systems and spur innovation in the emerging local food industry throughout West Virginia.

The tour included visits to farmers markets and other roundtable discussions to educate West Virginians about local agriculture and to sponsor businesses that use produce from local farmers.

The Appalachian Regional Commission hopes such projects prompt Appalachian entrepreneurs to engage in more local food production, creating jobs and fostering local economic growth.

"West Virginia needs to make a name for itself in the food industry," Kasun said.

Since 2001, when the Appalachian Regional Commission began the Foodways Tour in Asheville, N.C., the Foodways project has funneled almost $7.6 million into the local food industry of almost every Appalachian state, fostering innovative techniques for food production on the local and regional levels.

Reach Laura Reston at 304-348-5100.


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