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Selling direct to international markets

4.5 min read

Marketing agri-food products in Canada has many roads, though most are untravelled. Each year, international marketing continues to evolve and while difficult, it’s certainly not impossible. And it could be right for you.

Pork plight

When Ray Price thinks back on his family farm, Sunterra, he is most proud of putting time and effort into every aspect of his work, including marketing. With a hog and grain operation at Acme, Alta., the family was part of a producer group that had a Japanese production contract with the provincial pork board more than 35 years ago. Price realized early on, though, that Sunterra had a real opportunity to blaze their own trail as they became familiar with the Japanese market.

At a time when only frozen pork products headed to Japan, Price made a deliberate shift to find a way to offer fresh and chilled products too. An initial meeting with Japanese buyers was where he secured their favour and convinced them he could be a preferred supplier.

Most North American packers offered North American products … We wanted to offer a Japanese product made in Canada.

“They said, ‘What do you sell?’ I said, ‘What do you want? Whatever you want us to make, we’ll make.’ It took me 20 minutes to convince them we were serious,” says Price, whose Sunterra Group also includes grocery stores, catering and cured meats in its portfolio. “[The Japanese had] doubt because most North American packers offered North American products for Japan. We wanted to offer a Japanese product made in Canada.”

To that end, Sunterra created appealing boxes for presentation-aware Japanese consumers. Price also had Japanese chefs come to his processing plant to teach his cutters how to perfect Japanese techniques.

“Over the years, we certainly learned they were ahead of us on pork quality,” Price says. “We’ve incorporated it into our plants.”

For Price, one critical element of marketing success was just being present. With more than 100 trips to Japan in his career, the importance of presence transformed the business dynamic.

“They really appreciated that an owner would be meeting with them and determining that if they wanted different specs, I could say, ‘yes, it will happen,’ and it will happen,” he says.

He recommends anyone thinking of entering the agri-food supply chain imitate a tortoise, not a hare.

“It’s a long-term thought process,” he says. “You don’t make a quick buck by exporting. You have to prove value, [build] relationships and must have something to deliver. It’s not very often you’re going to be able to get into a market and it’s going to be smooth.”

Price says although Sunterra lost money for multiple years learning on the job, he knew the company could provide substantial amounts of quality pork and encourages the next generation to also have a mathematically viable volume of scale.

“It’s not something for a one-off; you have to sell enough product and have enough value,” he says. “You have to be thinking $1 million at minimum to be worthwhile.”

Price estimates he’s taken around 70 different employees to Tokyo over the years so they could see their hard work on store shelves there – the city’s metropolitan population is equivalent to Canada’s entire population.

“You have to want it. That’s why I took so many people over, so they’d be proud of what they did,” he says.

Homegrown transformation

Canada is well-known for sending raw commodities all over the globe, but that doesn’t sit well with Murad Al-Katib. He says it shouldn’t sit well with producers, either. The president and CEO of AGT Foods and Ingredients in Regina, Sask., has steadily built a pulse-based processing empire with the specific purpose of positioning Canada in the driver’s seat when it comes to this trendy foodstuff. What began with 100,000 tonnes of lentil processing capacity is now two million tonnes.

“We successfully worked to convince people that this crop was not only agronomically viable, but they could earn a big return instead of using summerfallow,” he says.

Al-Katib saw potential in the Middle East and India with shifting consumer preferences that are eager for plant-based proteins.

Where he sees new-school marketing opportunities for producers is through the internet of things and providing a “double pay” via the capture of agronomic data and then supplying it — along with the commodity — to processors, which continue to pop up nationwide.

“Data, sensors and analytics will have a direct payback on profit per acre,” he says. “In addition, that data, when collected, can be put into an identity-preserved, traceable, blockchain-certified food system. Growers will benefit in the long term.”

He says the ones who will capitalize and profit from this are well-educated entrepreneurs who see the data as an opportunity, not a threat or something scary. “Large farms with aspirations to become more participatory in this new economy are moving to technology and innovation to help them get there,” he says.

Al-Katib also notes there are huge opportunities for youth, women and Indigenous people.

“They’re entrepreneurs, financially capable and savvy, demanding more; they want to be part of the growth, they don’t want to be a passenger. If you’re not part of it, you’ll get left behind,” he says.

From an AgriSuccess article by Trevor Bacque.

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