(Jan. 16) SAVANNAH, Ga. — Attendees of the 2003 Southeast Regional Fruit and Vegetable Convention were given a partly positive and partly negative outlook on export opportunities during three educational sessions Jan. 10 in Savannah.

Because of poor economic conditions in the Far East, the Japanese market has declined for U.S. exporters for the past five years, said Margie Bauer, who heads the Caribbean Basin Agricultural Trade Office in Miami for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agriculture Service.

Exports to the European Union generally have been declining because, for much of the past several years, the dollar has been worth more than the euro, not to mention issues surrounding market access, she said. But the dollar is falling, which should help. Also, other opportunities exist in the EU for U.S. exporters, most notably for sweet onions, sweet potatoes, sweet corn, pecans and other nuts, she said.

Horticultural exports in general have been expanding, however, and the long-term outlook for U.S. producers remains positive, Bauer said. Those exports are estimated to be $11.3 billion in 2003, of which about 30% will be fresh fruits and vegetables — the largest slice of the horticultural pie.

Smaller but increasingly important export markets can be found closer to home, Bauer pointed out. The Dominican Republic, for example, is the second-largest export market for fresh beans grown in the U.S., and the Caribbean as a whole — which totals 18 million residents and accommodates 23 million tourists annually — continues to increase its demand for U.S. fruits and vegetables, she said.

About 400 wholesalers export fruits and vegetables to the Caribbean, and as much as 80% of the product passes through Florida produce firms, most of them in Miami, Bauer said.

Traditionally, Caribbean markets have been viewed as a dumping ground for poor quality and off-grades, but that may be changing as many involved in the trade become more sensitive to the stigma, she said. Still, some of the islands with poorer economies simply can’t afford the best quality, she said.

Greg Fonsah, an extension economist at the University of Georgia’s Rural Development Center in Tifton, presented the results of a case study of selected Caribbean islands and export potential for Georgia-grown product.

One of the surprising findings: Among factors influencing the decisions of buyers in the Caribbean, quality ranked higher than price. A commitment to a long-term relationship also ranked as a major concern for buyers looking to do business with U.S. producers, Fonsah said.

Consumer prices can be steep in some Caribbean markets. A pound of strawberries or a single cantaloupe can fetch $13.99, Fonsah said, noting duties on some items are 160% or more. On his travels to the islands, the only Georgia-grown product he saw was baby carrots.

While exporters in Florida routinely act as intermediaries, the desire among Caribbean buyers is to work directly with growers to improve quality and cut out some of the cost, Fonsah said.

Also at the export sessions, Cory Clack-Streef, president of Faye Clack Marketing and Communications Inc., Mississauga, Ontario, gave an overview of the Go South! campaign, which promotes 19 commodities from 15 Southern U.S. states and Puerto Rico in markets north of the border. The Clack firm is a contractor for the Southern U.S. Trade Association, New Orleans.

The campaign incorporates a host of marketing activities, mostly in Ontario, where more than a third of Canada’s 31 million people live. Weekly ads, in-store visits to educate produce managers, reports on competition and outreach efforts with food media support the campaign, Clack-Streef said.

The campaign has been a success. In Ontario between 1996 when the campaign was begun and 2001, the value of the commodities sold soared 75%, from $44 million to $77 million.

Clack-Streef said commodities that could join the Go South! campaign in the future include tomatoes, potatoes and apples.

Canadian receivers, when recently polled, generally had very good things to say about Georgia product, Clack-Streef said. Vidalia onions and eggplant got raves, she said.

Cucumbers and zucchini received lower marks, however, because of light color and short shelf life. Overall grading of product could use a little tightening, too, she said, and more attention should be paid to checking off the appropriate commodity box on generic vegetable cartons.