Deep-fried and served on a stick or wok-fried and served with chopsticks, food is one of the strongest connections between Minnesota and China.
Food is not just something to eat. It’s a reflection of taste and culture and geography and more. Food says a lot about people. It’s why we find the food in other countries and regions so interesting.
So it makes sense that Governor Mark Dayton’s trade mission to China has a strong emphasis on agriculture and food. It makes dollars, too. A whole lot of them.
China is Minnesota’s top market for agricultural commodities and related food products, with purchases of $1.35 billion in 2010.
“That accounts for more than one-fourth of Minnesota’s agricultural exports,” says state Agriculture Commissioner Dave Frederickson, who is traveling with the delegation.
“In the past 10 years, our ag exports to China have jumped 800 percent, mostly driven by exports of bulk and intermediate commodities,” said Frederickson. “China’s the top buyer and the main market for Minnesota soybeans and a growing market for our pork.”
And it’s not just commodities. Sales of processed foods were $202 million. Push a cart through the aisles of a big supermarket in China and you’ll find more than a few iconic Minnesota food brands on the shelves.
Trumpeting the Bugles®
At one time or another, most Minnesota kids have eaten Bugles®, those crunchy, cone-shaped corn snacks made by General Mills that small children especially love to wear on their fingertips like a witch’s fingernails.
But unless you’ve been in China, you’ve never eaten “Seaweed” flavored Bugles®. In the Chinese market, the snack is made with potatoes, corn or rice and comes in dozens of flavors. In fact, Bugles® has become the leading brand among non-potato chip snacks in Greater China.
Curious how they market Bugles® in China? Take a look at this commercial on YouTube:
Adapting to Different Tastes
These veteran companies and hundreds of others like them know well that to sell food in other parts of the world successfully, you have to understand consumer tastes.
Chinese consumers might find nacho cheese or cool ranch snacks unappealing.
That’s why Minnesota companies adapt existing processed food products to reflect preferred tastes and textures or offer entirely new products.
“Different regions of China have different preferences for flavors and spice,” says Adam Dombrovski, sales manager with Foley, MN-based Dombrovski Meats. As part of the business delegation traveling with the governor, Dombrovski is researching the market potential for his products in China.
“We’re hoping to arrange a focus group of buyers as part of our research.”
Dombrovski has been working with market experts at the Minnesota Department of Agriculture to understand export and marketing requirements and to learn more about the palates of Chinese consumers.
Ann and David Buck want to introduce Chinese consumers to the joys of Minnesota’s official state drink – and everything made from it.
As representatives of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, the Bucks will be promoting the state’s dairy industry.
“China has one of the lowest levels of per capita milk consumption in the world,” says David Buck. “We see this trade mission as an opportunity to get as much information as possible about their dairy product industry, processing and distribution. We just want to take it all in and learn more about the taste buds of the Chinese.”
Despite having a low level of dairy in their diet, China has recently experienced a surge in dairy consumption that’s tracking with the rise in household income and growth of a middle class.
That spells opportunity for Minnesota dairy producers, considering that the number of middle class consumers in China is about equal to the entire population of the United States.
And as the appetite of the Chinese middle class grows, so will the opportunities for Minnesota’s farmers and processed food companies to satisfy the demand for new things to eat.
Think of it as China ordering Minnesota take-out.