Reaping greener pastures

Updated: 2011-12-16 11:02

By Alexis Hooi (China Daily European Weekly)

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Many Chinese exporters might be reeling from the economic chill in the West this Christmas, but demand for some US products is fueling a bumper season on this side of the Pacific.

Reaping greener pastures

"It's actually reverse. When you take US agricultural exports, it's always a success story," says Jorge Sanchez, agricultural consul for the agricultural trade office at the US Consulate General in Guangzhou, capital of Guangdong province.

Agricultural, aquaculture and forestry exports from the United States to China totaled about $20 billion (15 billion euros) last year, Sanchez says.

Top products include soybeans, cotton, leather and wood, but there have also been significant growth in "supermarket goods" like fresh and dried fruit as well as tree nuts, he says.

These are part of what he calls his "tigers" in South China that ride on a surge in consumption from year end, through Christmas and the Chinese New Year.

"Tree nuts are a big winner, including almonds and pistachios. The market was built on the efforts of some brokers in Hong Kong and there has been so much demand built up for pistachios there wasn't enough of those in California to meet the growing demand in the Greater China area," Sanchez says.

"So they moved to the next nut, which was almonds. Almonds are great because they go well as a sweet or a savory. It's a very versatile nut and can be used in a number of sectors. Especially so for the Cantonese, as they have a lot of almond milk and almond tofu, while the natural almond flavor in Cantonese cuisine is of very high standard and very well regarded."

Tree nut exports from the US grew by about 30 percent from 2006 to 2007 alone and have been increasing up to 20 percent in the last two years, Sanchez says.

The growth of the nut processing industry in the province have helped the area become the largest distribution point in the world for tree nuts, he says.

"The people that I work with the most are the nut roasters. These are the people that are importing them ... they are also helping to build brand equity.

"The more the companies invest in their brand, the safer their products are going to be. It's also cementing the Pearl River Delta as the tree nut manufacturing center of the world now."

Guangdong is an economic powerhouse of China, fueled by low-cost manufacturing centered around its Pearl River Delta. But the economic downturn in the US and debt crisis in Europe have affected many industries that depend on the Christmas buying season this year.

The Chinese appetite for many US food products hits a high during this time instead, Sanchez says.

"Some of the growing seasons are in line with the festive mood. For example, the first week of November was the harvest period for most of the walnuts, almonds and tree nuts. The purchases were made way in advance but they are going to arrive just in time for the Christmas, chunjie (Spring Festival) season," he says.

"The consumption is definitely seasonal. For companies that are here, they are buying a lot of these products because they are giving them to US firms, or it's a US firm that's giving them to their employees or to government contacts. For their own internal relations, every company gives gifts and we are trying to encourage them to give more US products," Sanchez says.

"In terms of the Chinese, when they start consuming, they start with gifts for business, then gifts for family and finally it's gifts for themselves. So way into Chinese New Year and even a week into that, you see the highest expenditure rates than at any other time of the year.

"I'm very optimistic, China is like the most dynamic and fastest-growing market in the world and there's nothing but optimism in this market.

"As I tell my friends, in America there are resources, but in China there are opportunities. This is a good complement."