Friday, October 3, 2014

USDA rep explores Alaska's ag export potential

Christian Foster, deputy administrator for the Office of Trade Programs, USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service, visited Alaska in late September to drum up business.

He met with Anchorage business people about exporting fish, craft beer, rhodiola and birch products  to countries around the world, then went to Seward to visit peony farms and finally to Fairbanks to talk to University of Alaska Fairbanks agriculture faculty and industry representatives from peony and barley flour companies. While in Anchorage, Foster met with Lt. Gov. Mead Treadwell and experienced a 6.2-magnitude earthquake.

From left, Christian Foster of the Foreign Agricultural Service in Washington, D.C., met with Professor Pat Holloway, Rep. David Guttenberg, peony growers Carolyn Chapin and Ron Illingworth Sept. 26. He said throughout his trip to Alaska that peonies had "risen to the top."
"We want to help you promote agricultural resources and support international food security," Foster said. "Congress mandates that we give out $250 million, but Alaska doesn't take its share. Please find a need for it."

In the U.S., 25 percent of all agricultural products are exported, Foster said. This year, the country set an all-time high of $152 billion worth of food exports, with China being the largest importer. "In agriculture, they import like mad."

Foster believes Alaska-grown food will have a special appeal in foreign markets. "Not only can you say we have American products, you can say we're Alaskan; we have the purest food in the world," he said.

Meeting with SNRE faculty members Mingchu Zhang about canola, Meriam Karlsson about greenhouses and season extension, Pat Holloway about peonies, Jenifer Huang McBeath about potatoes, Greg Finstad about reindeer, along with several forest sciences faculty, Foster extolled the merits of three programs: Emerging Markets, Technical Assistance for Specialty Crops and Quality Samples.

Foster also met Bryce Wrigley, owner of Alaska Flour Co., home to the state's only commercial flour mill. Wrigley's farm produces Sunshine barley, which the Agricultural and Forestry Experiment Station researched and developed.

The only food product successfully exported in Alaska has been seafood, Foster said. "We have helped Alaska Market seafood worth $50 million in the last 10 years. There is more money we could give Alaska if businesses came and said they have products to export."
Mingchu Zhang, left, and Christian Foster discussed the opportunities for Alaska to export GMO-free canola.

Mingchu Zhang told Foster, "It is great you are here. You can help us link products to markets. There is huge potential here. You opened new horizons for us."

Foster said, "You need Alaska producers and associations to step forward and start the market research about demand. And you need to help farmers think like businessmen. The potential is massive."

As a result of the sessions, Reindeer Research Program Manager Greg Finstad is writing a proposal to help St. Lawrence Island producers market reindeer meat to Pacific Rim countries. "We're developing a business plan for a processing plant," Finstad said. "The timing was perfect."

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