OLYMPIA — Washington potato growers, blueberry farmers and wine-makers will be represented on a trade mission this month to Japan and South Korea led by Gov. Jay Inslee.
All three agriculture groups have ambitions to increase sales in Asia. Potato and blueberry farmers hope to capitalize if trade barriers come down, while vintners are pitching Washington wines to retail outlets in Korea.
About 60 business and government leaders, including state Agriculture Director Derek Sandison, are expected to make the trip to promote Washington agriculture, aerospace, manufacturing and technology industries.
Inslee will leave Aug. 28 and begin by meeting with government and business leaders in Seoul, South Korea. The trip will end with a display of Washington food and wine at a Tokyo Costco. In between, the delegation will travel to Washington’s sister state in Korea, North Jeolla province, and the Japanese cities Kobe and Nagoya.
Washington exported $1.6 billion worth of agricultural goods to Japan last year, including $218 million in frozen potatoes, despite an 8.5 percent tariff.
The Washington State Potato Commission hopes sales will increase if the Trans-Pacific Partnership does way with the tariff, the commission’s assistant executive director, Matt Harris, said. The 12-nation pact is being negotiated in secret and hasn’t been presented to Congress for ratification.
Washington saw frozen potato sales to Korea jump from about $40 million to $62 million annually in 2014 after a U.S.-Korea free-trade agreement was signed in 2012, eliminating an 18.5 percent tariff.
“We haven’t seen (sales) slow down yet. We hope we haven’t hit that plateau of growth,” Harris said.
Harris and the commission’s marketing director, Ryan Holterhoff, will make the trip to firm up relations with distributors and probe how consumers can be won over. “It is important for us to make connections to customers,” Harris said. “To show we care.”
The blueberry industry has been looking toward Asia for customers as production has increased. The U.S. Department of Agriculture has purchased surplus blueberries for food banks and soup kitchens to stabilize prices.
“We know the handwriting is on the wall. We need to develop new markets,” Washington State Blueberry Commission Executive Director Alan Schreiber said.
Washington blueberry farmers hope to gain permission to sell fresh berries to Korea. Oregon farmers gained access in 2012 after 10 years of negotiations to set food-safety regulations.
Schreiber said he hoped that Washington farmers will win access “within three years.” The trade trip won’t yield any immediate results, but it’s important to “show the flag,” he said.
“Foreign markets take time to develop, and this is just one of the things you do,” Schreiber said.
Washington State Wine Commission will focus on the Korean leg of the trip, the commission’s president, Steve Warner, said.
Japan already represents 9 percent of Washington wine exports, while Korea takes in 4.1 percent.
Washington wines are available for on-premise consumption at Western-style restaurants and hotels in Korea, but they need to break into more retail outlets.
“In order to be successful, we have to do on-premise and off-premise,” he said.
“We’re just scratching the surface,” Warner said. “I’m really happy with where we are, and I think there are tremendous opportunities.”
Washington exported $469 million in agricultural products last year to South Korea.
“While Japan is our largest trading partner for agricultural products, consumer demand is quickly growing in South Korea for our products,” Sandison said in a written statement.