The forage export market is getting larger, “and that’s good news for growers,” said John Szczepanski, director of the U.S. Forage Export Council (USFEC), a subcommittee of the National Hay Association (NHA).
But USFEC, made up of 29 Western U.S. forage export companies, is working to overcome some potential customers’ misperceptions of, and lack of information about, U.S. hay. Szczepanski updated NHA members on his progress at their mid-September annual meeting in Salem, OR.
“Total U.S. (hay) exports are about $1.3 billion,” he said, with Japan’s purchases at half that amount. “It has been a significant market and, historically, the lead market. But, increasingly, we see growth in China and the UAE (United Arab Emirates), and I would say that represents a quarter of our market.” South Korea accounts for another quarter of U.S. hay exports.
China’s appetite for dairy products has increased in recent years. But its dairies are located near heavily populated areas closer to the coast, while the country’s grassland regions are farther inland.
“It is cheaper for China to import quality product” than transport its forage to the coast on an insufficient road system, Szczepanski said. The country annually spends $200-$250 million on U.S. hay purchases. “The U.S. still provides quality product, and it’s important that our industry keep up that quality and keep up the safety standard.
“But I met with Chinese officials who said, ‘Right now we’re buying product from you; in the future, we will sell to you,” he cautioned the group. According to some reports, the Chinese may accept Roundup Ready alfalfa imports as soon as next fall or early 2015, he added.
Middle Eastern countries look to buy more U.S. hay in part because they can no longer afford to use their few water resources to raise the crop themselves. “They really need to be buying from outside, and that could be the U.S. The U.S. has developed a good reputation in most parts of the Middle East, but that market could be expected to grow.”
In Saudi Arabia, one newspaper report suggested an increase in alfalfa imports of 2.6 million tons in the next couple of years. Szczepanski has heard numbers closer to 3 million tons.
“They want 3 million tons of alfalfa. The U.S. exports 3 million tons of everything, so, obviously, Saudi Arabia and other countries in the Middle East are developing contacts, not only in North America, but in North Africa and Europe. We’re going to be playing in an increasingly global environment.”
Szczepanski strives to identify governmental, academic and trade association contacts to help USFEC’s export companies, from three Western hay-growing regions, gain access to foreign markets. A third of those companies are located in northern region – in Washington state, Oregon and Idaho. Another third, in Oregon’s Williamette Valley, make up the central region. California export firms make up the southern region.
USFEC doesn’t promote individual companies; it presents them as a united export entity, he said. Szczepanski works with countries to set up protocols and procedures and clear export obstacles so member-companies can effectively export product.
At a Japan trade show last October, his staff surveyed hay importers, asking if they felt U.S. forage was “safe or very safe” and whether they were willing to pay for a safe product. The majority said that they did, but only 68% intended to buy U.S. forage in the next 12 months.
Part of the problem may be that information – such as how U.S. growers produce good-quality hay – gets lost in translation from buyers to end users. It could give end users “skewed” views of U.S. forage, he said.
Rather than advertising, USFEC has worked with the editors of Japanese dairy and beef magazines, providing them with article ideas to educate end users on U.S. hay products.
“In 2012, people came to us and said, ‘We noticed the quality here is not as good as it was before. We understand the United States is shipping more product to China and the Middle East.’
“The implication was that we were sending better product to those other markets.” They hadn’t heard of the challenging weather conditions that U.S. growers faced last year, Szczepanski added.
Japanese importers are aware when a half-inch of rain falls in hay-growing regions of the U.S. He hopes that magazine articles will also help keep their end users informed and repair some of the mistrust of American-grown products.
As an example, he told of a farmer who complained that the dry timothy imported from another country was “a lot of work.” But, he added, he didn’t trust American hay because “it looks too good. It’s obvious you’re putting chemicals all over it and I’m not going to buy it.”
Szczepanski explained that the hay may have been produced under irrigation. But the assumption was, “if it looks good, there’s something wrong with it. We’ve got that reputation built into the Japanese mindset that U.S. product is overly chemically treated. We need to work through that.”