This is Part 3 of a series looking at growing North Carolina exports to China. Fox 8′s Nicole Ferguson traveled to Beijing as fellow through the International Center for Journalists to take a look at the trend.
KERNERSVILLE, N.C. — On a bright, sunny afternoon in early March, Jenny Fulton heads to her grandmother’s Kernersville cucumber field. She’s inching toward closing one of the most important deals of her career. One that will take this small, local business owner international.
Fulton and her business partner Ashli Furr are hosting Shen Shenglai (Shen Shen), a high-end food buyer from Beijing, and his translator. Shenglai toured Fulton’s farm as well as her Kernersville warehouse, where he examined Miss Jenny’s Pickles’ labels and new flavors.
The two met last year during a state department of agriculture-sponsored trade show in Raleigh called “Flavors of Carolina.” By October, Miss Jenny’s Pickles were headed overseas. Last year, China exports made up 12 percent of Fulton’s business.
“Mr. Shen has the ability to place Miss Jenny’s Pickles in 100 stores,” Fulton said. “We’re currently in 40.”
“I think It’s very good,” Shenglai said of the pickles. “Just more varieties, and I feel it’s going to be popular (in China).
Jenny’s Pickles is just one example of how North Carolina agriculture is becoming a hot commodity in China.
“We know it’s real,” said state agriculture commissioner Steve Troxler in reference to the N.C. product growth in China. “We’re now exporting — as of 2010 — $542 million worth of agricultural products out of North Carolina to China.”
The state’s overall exports to China are nearing $3 billion.
“One of the things that we have seen is as the middle-class grows and becomes more prosperous, the first thing they want to do is have better food products,”added Troxler. “It goes beyond the things that you’re thinking. We’re exporting a lot of soybeans, wheat, cotton… You name it and we’re in the exporting business to get it to China.”
“Got to be NC” In China
Troxler has been traveling to China on trade missions since 2009. During his last mission in 2011, his wife joined him. In Chinese culture, he says, it’s “about relationships,” and family is the strongest, most important relationship there is.
“I’m very proud to say that we are probably one of the most aggressive states in the nation as far as international trade to China,” said Troxler.
So aggressive that the state has set up a Beijing-based trade export office in the city’s Chaoyang Business District. It’s in a high-rise building, a small 15th floor office, and has been open just over a year. An official photo of Troxler hangs on the wall alongside a framed “Got to be NC” ad with Chinese character translation bordering the bottom.
This is also where, on most days, you’ll find Annie Qiao. Qiao is one of three people working in that office and acting as a liasion between Chinese buyers like Shen, and North Carolina business owners like Fulton.
“On the Chinese side, I don’t know why, Chinese like Americans for some reason,” she laughed. “People just get too used to that (Chinese products) so we also want something new, something more interesting.”
“It’s very good. If they bring it over here, we will try it,” said one young Chinese woman of American food. “It’s fresh.”
“There’s a difference,” her friend added.
Another young woman shopping outside Beijing’s Silk Market agrees some Western foods are desirable, but costly.
“I think maybe the good products that they have are not common here, and regular citizens would rarely buy these products because they tend to be more expensive,” the 22-year-old student said.
But that growing middle-class and wealthy are purchasing Western foods.
Qiao is currently working on importing North Carolina azaleas. Another member of the staff is sealing the deal on pickles, while someone else works a tobacco trade agreement. In 2009, China was contracted to purchase more than 50 million pounds of North Carolina tobacco.
“Chinese people will widely accept North Carolina tobacco,” said Qiao. “They think the quality is really good and the taste is special.”
Qiao does a lot of the state’s business via Skype, but she says if a small North Carolina business person is lucky, their interested buyer may sponsor their trip to China. This is the case with Fulton, who is currently in Beijing visiting Shen and his restaurants.
“It’s fantastic because finally we all become good friends,” said Qiao.
Dr. Vasyl Taras teaches international business courses in the University of the North Carolina at Greensboro’s Bryan School of Business and Economics. His class exercises often revolve around understanding the growing, changing Chinese consumer. A brand consiousess, massive 3 billion population sets China a part from other top export nations, including Canada and Mexico.
“It’s a huge market,” said Taras. “They have more smokers than we have people. They have more babies than we have people. They have more consumers, and that’s a huge opportunity.”
An opportunity that could quickly change China’s positioning as a third place export nation to the United States.
“There is a good chance China will be number one and probably we will be selling more to China than to Mexico, Canada combined, in my forecast over, the next five to ten years,” said Taras.
“If we believe our government, the forecast is that exports to China will double to 2014 from where they are now.”
North Carolina’s positioning as a furniture and agriculture exporter to China is solid and growing. But Taras points out the state’s most desirable commodity may be its 16-member University of North Carolina system. UNC is strengthening ties with China, and Taras says exchange students paying tuition, rent, and spending money instead of working, immediately create an impact on the state economy.
“So every student, any student, is like a walking bailout package,” Troxler said.”This (China) may be our chance of getting out of this recession.”
“The sky’s the limit,” he added.