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Pickled products, beans, flour, fruit and more: Michigan businesses export food with help of state

A customer tries Safies asparagus

This article is one of a series of stories about Michigan’s agricultural economy. It is made possible with funding from the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.  Other stories in this series can be found here.

When Mary Safie's grandfather Dmitri Safie preserved vegetables grown on his Macomb County farmland, it's unlikely he knew he was beginning a family food legacy whose products would end up as sought-after international exports that boost Michigan's economy.

Mary Safie's enthusiasm for her family's pickled products bubbles over when she talks. On her mind recently was a major honor the Safie family brand received for their Crispy Dill Pickled Carrots at a major Canadian food show. Safie is president and CEO of Safie Specialty Foods Co., Inc., a Mount Clemens business operating since 1929.

One-third of Safie's business comes from Canadian exports. "Our Sweet Pickled Beets are our number one item," Safie says. The beets were the first product the business exported in 2008.

A Safie product display at Tom's Food Market in Traverse City Safie enlisted the help of the International Marketing Program of the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development (MDARD) to launch the beet export. Since then, through the department's work pooling resources with the Food Export Association of the Midwest, Safie has been able to participate in international missions to market her products, meet one-on-one with buyers visiting the United States, gather market research, and promote Safie's through international food trade shows.

Safie's creates 16 different gourmet pickled products. They're proud to hand pack Michigan-grown carrots, beets, pickles, asparagus, green beans, and peppers into traditional, quart mason jars. Products range from traditional Old-Fashioned Bread & Butter Pickles and Dill Pickle Beans to trendy Sexy Hot Pickled Asparagus and Padre Pio Mild Pepperoncini.

The state food and ag department has found that every $1 invested in export activity generates another $2.93 in economic activity. In 2015, the most recent year for which figures are available, Michigan agriculture exported $2.8 billion in products, translating to an additional $8.2 billion in local impact.

Safie's alone sent 5 million pounds of finished product into Canada last year and hopes to grow that by 50 percent by the end of the year. "Our projected gross annual product for 2017 is 7.5 million pounds of finished product," Safie says.

To meet the demands of their international growth, Safie's has increased its facilities from 10,000 to 30,000 square feet. "It's added tremendously to the local supply chain,” Safie says. "We had to increase our productivity, which in turn increased our raw material needs, which then increased local expenditures."

Labor force also grew. "Our growth correlates with the expansion of our line into the Canadian marketplace."

The slogan "Born and raised in Macomb County, Michigan" is an important part of the Safie Specialty Foods Co. culture. "We pride ourselves as a Michigan company and, just as importantly, as a U.S. company," Safie says. "The majority of our supplies come from Michigan raw materials and over 90 percent of our supplies are of U.S. origin."

Through the Michigan Department of Agriculture and Rural Development, Safie's has been able to court other international buyers, as well. "We've also been able to go overseas to Germany and Abu Dhabi to showcase our product," Safie says. "The State of Michigan has afforded us excellent opportunities, both nationally and internationally."

"We learned through the different programs like MDARD and Food Export that taste profile is very important," Safie says. "Some countries are more inclined to consume pickled products than others and they help us identify those countries. Learning the customs and traditions of foreign countries is important when thinking about introducing your product to their market ... These programs have helped me grow and become an international company."

Exporting around the world

Cherry Central, based in Traverse City, has also embraced MDARD export assistance to get Michigan foods overseas, according to Brian Klumpp, director of business development for the company. Working with hundreds of farmers, Cherry Central grows, processes, and markets fruits, whether dried, frozen, or canned. While cherries are featured in the name, apples, blueberries, and cranberries and more are also part of the product lineup. 

"Cherry Central exports frozen fruits, dried fruits, fruit juices, fruit juice concentrates, applesauce, and fruit purees," Klumpp says. "We export to over 30 countries with particular emphasis in Europe and Asia Pacific. We've been exporting since our first year of business in 1973 and are very proud that our first customers are still important customers to us today."

Dried fruit from Cherry CentralCherry Central didn't need to knock on doors to find those early export markets when it began 44 years ago. "We had customers calling us," Klumpp says. While exports are still led by demand, Klumpp says more and more markets open up because of market research the business uses "to determine where, when, and what makes the most sense for our company to expand and grow in export markets."

Some of that market research comes through MDARD programs. "MDARD has hosted several trade mission trips to foreign markets that have always been well-managed and very helpful to our business," Klumpp says. "They've also assisted us with market information and support."

Most recently, Klumpp joined an MDARD-led food and agriculture trade mission to China in November, where a rising middle class is interested in premium products like those produced by Cherry Central. He also traveled to China with Governor Rick Snyder and others in 2013 on a similar mission. Cherry Central used a Market Builder report compiled through MDARD that showed information about competing products and prices in China, as well as what potential buyers thought about their products.

Klumpp believes these export efforts have not only helped the company, its growers, and employees, but the larger fruit industries it represents. "Cherry Central's strength in foreign markets has helped these fruits to become well-known around the world for their health benefits and for their great flavors," he says.

According to MDARD, Michigan agricultural exports help boost farm prices and income, while also supporting more than 22,600 jobs statewide both on and off the farm in food processing, storage, and transportation.

Growth at Star of the West

Most anyone who has visited historic Frankenmuth has probably seen the tall grain and bean storage facilities that tower over the town. Some may not have known that's part of Star of the West Milling Co., a business built along the Cass River by the immigrant Hubinger brothers in the 1800s, who brought milling skills with them from Germany. Among the largest millers in the United States, Star of the West is another Michigan business that exports products worldwide with the assistance of MDARD. About 20 percent of the business for its network of elevators, plants, and mills in four states come from overseas exports.

According to Rob Chandonnet, vice president of edible bean sales, Star of the West experienced 27 percent growth in export sales from 2013 to 2014 alone. The company exports dry beans, edible soybeans, soft white wheat, and soft red winter wheat.

Dry beans, in particular, are an important staple food in much of the world. "Star of the West processes many kinds of edible beans," Chandonnet says. Those include multiple varieties of black beans, navy beans, and small red beans, usually shipped internationally in special one-ton bags.

For all of Michigan agriculture, top export markets are Canada, Japan, China, Thailand, and Mexico. 

"The Japanese are major consumers of miso, tofu, and natto," Chandonnet says of foods produced from edible soybeans. Star of the West does what's known as identity preservation, segregating, and maintaining specific varieties of the edible soybeans that have traits customers want for making each food, such as a specific size, color or protein content.

The soft white wheat Star of the West sells both stateside and overseas ends up in many foods, such as flat breads, cakes, biscuits, pastries, crackers, Asian-style noodles, and snack foods. 

Star of the West was recognized as the 2015 Michigan Agriculture Exporter of the Year. Chandonnet says the Michigan business could not have reached that level of success without the support it has received from MDARD international trade experts. "We appreciate the strong relationship and trust we've established with the MDARD over the years."

Driving overall growth in Michigan through food and agriculture products is a common thread that connects these small- to medium-sized businesses exporting with MDARD support. Foreign customers get to taste foods produced in Michigan and Michiganders get a healthy serving of added jobs and a strengthened agricultural economy.

Sue Stuever Battel is a homeschooling mother of four, a commercial maple syrup maker, daughter of dairy farmers, and a freelance agricultural writer born and raised in the Thumb of Michigan.
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