By JON GASKELL
Capital News Service
LANSING — Colombia could be the next big market for Michigan agricultural products, as representatives from the Department of Agriculture and Rural Development tour the South American country, looking to capitalize on recent free trade agreements and to open new markets for state-grown products.
Department Director Keith Creagh said Michigan wants to increase its global market share for agricultural commodities, a sector that has seen exports grow 10 percent between 2009 and 2010.
Jamie Zmitko-Somers, the department’s international marketing manager, said Colombian buyers are enthusiastic about importing more Michigan commodities like apples, soybeans, blueberries, cherries, corn and dry beans.
“What we’ve heard from buyers is they want American products and they know that Michigan has a reputation for high-quality produce,” Zmitko-Somers said.
Over the next 15 years, Colombia will eliminate several tariffs on U.S. agricultural products. That includes tariffs on some of Michigan’s most important commodities like soybeans and corn and fruits like blueberries and cherries.
Under the trade agreement, Colombia will immediately eliminate tariffs on soybeans and soybean products, which range from 5-20 percent. It will also end a 20 percent tariff on wheat and a 25 percent tariff on corn.
Zmitko Somers said the most onerous tariff for Michigan farmers is a 62 percent duty on dry beans, which has priced them out of the market.
“Once that duty is gone, Colombia is going to be a large market for black beans,” Zmitko-Somers said. “Now that U.S. products can compete, we expect a significant increase in exports to Colombia.”
The agreements with Colombia, Panama and South Korea passed Congress last October and are expected to take effect in August.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture estimates the elimination of trade barriers will increase Michigan agricultural exports to the three countries by $45 million per year.
Colombia is Michigan’s 29th largest trading partner. In 2010, it imported $135 million worth of Michigan goods, according to the U.S. Department of Commerce.
The current trade mission includes representatives from the Michigan Bean Commission and North Bay Produce, a Traverse City-based fruit growers cooperative.
The American Farm Bureau estimates the Colombia trade agreement will increase Michigan’s soybean exports by $1.8 million per year, wheat exports by $1.3 million dollars per year and corn exports by $1.5 million per year.
Bob Boehm of the Michigan Farm Bureau said Colombians, like much of the rest of the developing world, are changing their diet and becoming more interested in American agricultural products.
“More people around the world are starting to have diets that are higher in protein,” Boehm said. “This not only means there is an increased demand for livestock exports, but also feed grains like corn and soybeans.”
Boehm said the free trade agreement will increase demand for some of Michigan’s signature crops as well.
“There is a lot of interest in dried cherries and berries. We’ve been exporting a great deal of dry beans like black beans to Mexico and I imagine Colombia would be interested too,” Boehm said.
Robert Verloop of Naturipe Farms, a Florida-based company that exports Michigan blueberries, said consumption of blueberries per capita has doubled in recent years and global demand is increasing rapidly.
Verloop said that while Michigan blueberries haven’t penetrated the Colombian market yet, increased demand from Brazil suggests Latin America could be an important future market.
“Brazil is looking for an exterior supplier of fruits,” Verloop said. “When one country takes a lead, often neighboring countries look to add more sources as well.
“Developing countries look to the U.S. for quality and also look for region-specific products, Verloop said. “Michigan blueberries are seen as the gold standard.”
© 2012, Capital News Service, Michigan State University School of Journalism. Nonmembers cannot reproduce CNS articles without written permission.
By JON GASKELL