By TIM HEARDEN
CHICO, Calif. -- California is still a relatively small player in the olive oil industry while Europe is king.
So it was a tall order when the Oroville-based California Olive Ranch decided to market its high-quality oil in Germany.
However, the Golden State has a distinct advantage in the world of olive oil -- quality. The cheaper, highly subsidized European oil that dominates the global market just doesn't have the same texture or taste, olive producers say.
That leaves an opening among customers around the world who are willing to pay more for better oil, said Gregory Kelley, the California Olive Ranch's president and CEO.
"We cannot depend solely on one market," Kelley said, adding that the company's aim is to "skim off the demand for high quality around the world."
Kelley said the Western U.S. Agriculture Trade Association, a resource for export-minded agribusinesses, helped the Olive Ranch access federal funds so it could join California walnut and wine companies in setting up a booth at trade shows overseas.
He is one of several Northern California agricultural producers who credit various federal efforts, including the Market Access Program, for enabling them to make inroads into foreign markets. The producers told their success stories during a trade forum here May 24.
Michael Rue, owner of Rue and Forsman Ranch in Olivehurst, Calif., said the 477-acre organic rice farm has taken advantage of a free trade agreement with Jordan that took effect in 2001. The U.S. embassy facilitated California rice producers' appearance at trade shows to meet those who were retailing and selling in Jordan, he said.
Today Jordan receives about 100,000 of the 600,000 tons of rice exported from California annually, Rue said.
"I would just underline the importance of how a free trade agreement harmonizes trade with a country," he said.
The Golden State's prune and walnut industries, meanwhile, export about half their products each year. As its export business grew, the Wilbur Packing Co. in Yuba City began to encounter inquiries about whether it would attend some of the leading global food shows, co-owner Richard Wilbur said.
Then the business learned about programs available through WUSATA and the USDA's Foreign Agricultural Service.
"They really guide you through the process of having a booth," Wilbur said. "They really give the opportunity for a company to have a turnkey booth. ... Pretty much all you have to do is show up."
A variety of programs are available for agribusinesses seeking to develop overseas customers, including partial reimbursements for marketing efforts abroad and loans that are 90 percent guaranteed by the federal government.
For instance, the U.S. Department of Commerce's Export Assistance Center in Sacramento has sector-specific teams that provide such assistance as overseas market research, trade counseling and "matchmaking," center director George Tastard said.
Kelley and other business owners say results from the efforts can be slow, but they pay off. For instance, the California Olive Ranch started marketing in Japan two years ago and it's now the company's second largest market outside the U.S.
"We anticipate exports to Japan will double this year," Kelley said. "It's small volume. (But) the way we look at it is it's a process. We just need to have slow, persistent perseverance."
Western U.S. Agriculture Trade Association: http://www.wusata.org/
USDA Foreign Agricultural Service: http://www.fas.usda.gov/
U.S. Export Assistance Centers: http://export.gov/usoffices/index.asp
Small Business Administration: http://www.sba.gov/