ELLSWORTH, Maine — They may not opt to put “sold in China” next to “made in Maine” on their labels, but a handful of Maine food producers are hoping a group of visiting businessmen from that Asian country will help them realize their goal of exporting to Asia.
Blueberry growers and processors, a halibut aquaculture firm and lobster harvesters and processors met Friday with five Chinese business leaders who took a whirlwind tour of the state under the guidance of independent gubernatorial candidate Eliot Cutler. The group, which started with the lobster industry in Portland on Friday morning and then flew Down East in the afternoon, toured Wyman’s blueberry growing and processing facilities in Washington County and then met with officials with Maine Halibut Farms at the University of Maine’s Center for Cooperative Research in Franklin.
Craig Gladstone, president of Gladstone’s Under The Sun in Hancock, joined up with the tour at the blueberry and halibut facilities. He said it would be “real big” for his specialty berry food products company, which has about eight employees and produces about 1,500 pounds of food products each year, if it could tap into the Chinese market.
“We’re the only blueberry dryer in the state,” Gladstone said. “Exporting anywhere [is big]. We’re trying to. I’m working on it.”
Executives with Wyman’s also are actively working on finding an importer in China who might want to buy their products. On Friday afternoon, as a few executives with Chinese investment and food import firms sat drinking blueberry juice around a conference table at their Cherryfield offices, they gave them promotional literature about Wyman’s printed in Chinese.
“We’re looking to expand our business to export markets,” said Thomas Gardner, Wyman’s vice president for sales and marketing, whose business card has one side printed in Chinese. “The No. 1 target is China.”
Gardner said the company, which had annual sales of $70 million in 2009, made its first trip to China in May and received “very high” interest from some potential import partners.
“We were very encouraged from that trip,” Gardner said. “We were very excited. This is a major customer.”
Doug Morrell of Maine Halibut Farms said that it might be a little premature for the aquaculture firm, which is still in the development stages, to strike a deal with a Chinese importer. Morrell’s business partner, Alan Spear, told the Chinese delegation that it would take several million dollars in investment for Maine Halibut Farms to reach the scale necessary to export to China.
The company already has begun selling fish to restaurants in Maine, New York and Florida and has plans to move and expand its business at a former Navy site in Gouldsboro, but it is still trying to perfect the business model it needs to become a profitable company.
“It’s huge,” Morrell said of the potential to export Maine products to China. Even just the visit from the business leaders, he said, “provides exposure to markets.”
Ning Gaoning, chairman of Chinese food importer COFCO, said Friday afternoon at the Franklin aquaculture facility that he sees good potential with Maine businesses to export to China.
Ning, who goes by the American first name of “Frank” when in the United States, said the growing interest among Chinese consumers in purchasing healthful and sustainably harvested foods means Maine products like lobster, blueberry and halibut could sell well in the economically growing Asian country.
“It’s getting more and more important in China,” Ning said. “[The Maine trip] has been very eye-opening, very impressive. I’ve learned a lot. It’s a good beginning.”
Cutler said that even lobster, which have to be shipped live, is a marketable product in China. Australian lobster, which don’t have the same large claws as those in the north Atlantic, are shipped to China in 10 hours, but Maine lobster can be shipped to China in 12 hours, he said.
Ted O’Meara, Cutler’s campaign manager, said that Cutler met Ning and others while living in China from 2007 through mid-2009.
O’Meara said Maine and Chinese businesses could reach agreements on their own, but that the state does play a role in helping to promote Maine businesses and in helping them make contacts overseas — something Maine International Trade Center has done in China and numerous other countries.
He said Cutler began thinking about business opportunities for Maine companies in China when it occurred to him that Maine lobster might be more popular in China than Australian lobster.
“He had this [business tour] in mind well before he thought about running for governor,” O’Meara said.
The contingent of Chinese businessmen was expected to travel to New York on Friday evening, where they planned to spend a few more days conducting business before flying back to China next week.