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Looking Back on 2021 International Trade Successes

If 2020 was the year for figuring out how to maintain business from home, 2021 was the year for expanding trade opportunities overseas via computer screen. Over the course of 12 months, the Organic Trade Association (OTA) hosted six unique virtual trade opportunities geared at expanding business overseas for the U.S. organic industry.

Over 50 companies participated across these six virtual events, collectively projecting nearly three million U.S. dollars in new export sales as a result. Although our typical international trade activities involve jumping on planes and exhibiting organic products at trade shows, we worked creatively in 2021 to offer low-cost, high-impact virtual trade opportunities.

OTA kicked off the year with a virtual organic booth at Biofach. While we missed seeing friends and colleagues in person at the world’s largest organic trade show, the virtual venue allowed a handful of new business connections and the opportunity to participate in the Biofach Congress seminar sessions. Next, we hosted a two-day virtual event specifically created for organic ingredient companies, consisting of one-on-one meetings with targeted importers in Korea, the Philippines, Taiwan, and Japan, all of which are in the top 10 markets for U.S. organic exports.

Although we were not able to host our traditional buyers mission with Food Export during Natural Products Expo West, our Healthy, Natural, and Organic Trade Mission in April brought together 27 U.S. companies and 23 buyers for a three-day marathon of meetings taking place across continents and time zones.

Next, we headed ‘down under’ for a virtual trade mission to Australia and New Zealand, where U.S. companies received live market briefings from local experts on the organic market and economic landscape in both countries, followed by recorded store tours of a handful of retailers in both markets. While we wish we could have been there in person, this holistic virtual trade mission provided additional value to the participating companies as it included more than just one-on-one meetings. The event was rounded out with a series of business-to-business meetings, leading buyers from both countries to project over $2.3 million in purchases of U.S. organic products.

In fall 2021, the Organic Trade Association and Food Export hosted a follow-up event to our spring virtual trade mission, giving U.S. organic companies the opportunity to meet with over a dozen new importers from around the world.

Finally, OTA hosted our first export readiness training program—a 12-hour, three-session deep dive into the nitty-gritty of exporting overseas. These trainings were so well received by OTA members that we will host the training again in late spring 2022.

One participant noted, “I was not sure what to expect from this training. Sometimes continuing education sessions like this are well worthwhile and occasionally not as much. What was brought to the table here is enough for anyone to start exporting in a holistic, professional, and educated way. The information is concise, easy to understand, delivered well (not too fast or slow) and kept us all engaged. The homework was not imposing, was direct and effective in applying the knowledge taught. I can’t recommend this course highly enough for anyone who is interested in exporting and for those who already are. It was a great refresher and affirmation for me.”

In addition to the variety of business-to-business trade activities, we would have been remiss not to take advantage of consumer promotion opportunities overseas, particularly given the surge in demand for organic products during the COVID-19 pandemic. Over the summer, we conducted a retail promotion in partnership with four City Super retail outlets in Hong Kong, resulting in over $35,000 in sales of U.S. organic products during the three-week promotion period. City Super also heavily promoted the organic fair on Facebook and Instagram, reaching over 21,000 consumers through direct digital promotions of U.S. organic products.

These promotions are extremely valuable opportunities to highlight the U.S. organic products already available to consumers in overseas markets. As the sixth largest export market for U.S. organic products overseas, Hong Kong represents a crucial area for continued growth for U.S. organic products. During 2021, we also conducted consumer and social media promotions in Japan, South Korea, and the U.A.E. Results of these campaigns will be shared out in the next report.

While virtual events have been a successful pivot, it is hard to make up for the value of in-person business, particularly in the international field. We hosted a small delegation of buyers from Korea at Natural Products Expo East, where the buyers were able to seek out new business in person for the first time since the start of the pandemic. We then returned to the ever-successful Anuga trade fair in Cologne, Germany, our first in-person international event since February of 2020!

Anuga is the largest trade show for food and beverages globally, presenting unparalleled opportunities for U.S. companies to showcase their products to buyers from around the world. While the trade show felt a little different with extra safety protocols in place, it was no less successful for the seven companies who traveled with us. Collectively the group achieved $8.5 million in projected sales. Just over a month later, we traveled back to Europe for the Free From Amsterdam show, our first time exhibiting at this event which targets European importers, distributors, and retailers looking for “better for you” products, including organic, vegan, gluten free, and dairy free. While pandemic-related lockdowns impacted the event, exhibitors in our pavilion all left with a handful of solid business leads and over $440,000 in projected sales.

Looking back on this hybrid year of in-person and virtual events, it is clear the mindset for international activities in 2022 and beyond will need to be centered on flexibility and a “roll-with-the-punches” attitude. We are gearing up for a robust year of travel in 2022, bringing new and experienced exporters around the globe for a myriad of trade opportunities in Europe, Asia, North America, and the Middle East.

While we are excited to get back on the road with members for these events, we are doing so with an abundance of caution and appropriate safety measures in place.

Exports of U.S. organic products increased 8% in 2021 from 2020 values, echoing the growth in the domestic market demand for organic products. We are optimistic about the trade opportunities that lie ahead for U.S. organic companies in 2022, and hope you will consider joining us.

Alexis Carey is the Associate Director for International Trade at the Organic Trade Association.

This article was originally published in the Spring 2022 Organic Report, you can view the full magazine here.