One of the most important activities the Washington Grain Commission (WGC) undertakes over the course of a year is hosting trade teams. More funding may be devoted to other line items in the budget, but the amount of time WGC staff and commissioners devote to planning, hosting and summarizing trade team visits, eclipses all other pursuits.
U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) is an important conduit for trade team visits to the Northwest. Most, but not all groups are proposed for visits by USW overseas staff and coordinated through the organization’s Washington, D.C. or Portland, Oregon offices. In many cases, USW can use Foreign Market Development or Market Access Program funds appropriated by Congress, to help defray the cost of visits from current and potential customers.
Beginning in 2012 when Glen Squires took the reins as CEO at the WGC, trade team visits have become a more important focus of the organization, especially teams from Southeast Asia, per the commission’s direction.
“The Pacific Northwest has so much to offer. Within a relatively small footprint, our region exposes trade teams to the breadth and depth of wheat industry infrastructure, growing conditions, emphasis on quality and the research that keeps farmers in business and customers prospering,” he said.
With that in mind, the executive staff of the WGC, sat down together recently to talk about the care and feeding of trade teams and why so much energy is expended on them. Mary Palmer Sullivan, vice president and Joe Bippert, program director at the WGC, often tag team trade teams, working together and separately to create itineraries and address educational components.
Nowadays, Squires leads only the highest profile visits or those addressing specific challenges. Scott Yates, director of communications and producer relations, pulls trade team duties when others are unavailable. He also drops in on meetings and dinners, as well as hosts the Nisshin Crop Quality Survey team every August.
Asked how trade teams are organized, Sullivan said every group is different depending on the size of the team, length of stay and the part of the world they live. That’s because different USW overseas offices provide different kinds of information and background about the travelers.
“We try to find out what they want to see, whether it’s rail loading or barge loading facilities, research institutions or inspection agencies or just meeting with farmers. Throughout the process, our message emphasizes the quality wheat produced in the region. We don’t just tell them, we show them by bringing teams to WSU and the USDA/ARS,” she said, explaining the Pullman visits serve a dual purpose. “We want teams to understand that farmers’ investment in research is paying off.”
Squires reiterated Sullivan’s point about Washington State University and the Agricultural Research Service.
“Meeting with staff at the Western Wheat Quality Lab (WWQL) is often on a trade teams list of things they want to do before they even get here. They also want to meet with breeders to better understand the breeding process and why it’s so important. WSU is a critical stop in the PNW,” he said.
Although some teams stay in the region for as long as a week, others only come for a day. Bippert said that makes for a different experience, but “there’s a lot you can cram into a short amount of time.”
In general, Bippert said trade teams come in two flavors.
“Many of the individuals who accompany teams to the PNW are here for first time. For these newcomers, certain aspects of an itinerary are going to be more valuable than others. For some, if we take them to a wheat field, it may be their first experience seeing a head of wheat growing, plus just seeing the vastness of farming operations is an eye-opening experience,” he said, adding that trips to the top of Steptoe Butte aren’t just about providing a vantage point to take photographs.
“The view demonstrates the scale of what we’re working with,” he said, adding that more seasoned groups with several visits under their belt, may be looking at the specific quality of the crop in a particular year or addressing a particular challenge.
“Regardless of the type of team it is, I look at any visit as part of a relationship building exercise to create a stronger customer connection,” he said.
In terms of introducing teams to the region’s transportation infrastructure, Sullivan said having four shuttle train loading facilities located within 60 miles of the Spokane airport has been a boon, particularly HighLine Grain’s shuttle train loader, just minutes away.
“HighLine is often more convenient, but we may also stop at the McCoy shuttle loader on the way to Pullman or Templin Terminal outside Ritzville, depending on how the schedule works. Lately, it’s been more convenient to visit HighLine—and it is the newest latest and greatest, so we like to showcase that,” she said.
Bippert pointed out that scheduling a trade team is not as simple as creating a Washington itinerary because many trade teams are traveling to other states as well. This demands coordination.
“We have limited time with the groups that come through and we need to coordinate well with other commissions so we aren’t duplicating any activities,” he said. “Pullman is a great place to visit because we can go to a breeding lab and the quality lab, both of which are first class. If needed we can also take them to the river, but Idaho frequently covers barging from Lewiston,” he said.
Although commission staff make trade team arrangements, and can provide the best overview of the industry, Squires said it’s gratifying that most trade teams do not feel a visit to the region is complete without meeting and speaking with farmers.
“There are many parts to the grain chain, but because farmers represent the first link, visiting a farm and talking to a farmer is always a highlight. It works both ways. Farmers enjoy meeting their end-use customers too. We are lucky at the WGC to have a board that understands and appreciates the importance of a one-on-one interaction,” he said, adding that all of the board’s 10 commissioners have participated with at least one trade teams in the last year.
Interspersed between stops on a trade team visit is a lot of time spent in a van. Far from being wasted, however, all of the executives said this traveling time can be very valuable when it comes to learning of a team’s specific concerns. But such open communication also depends on the make-up of the team.
As Sullivan put it: “The discussion is a lot more candid when a team is all from the same company. We can ask pointed questions and they will answer, something individuals aren’t comfortable doing in a setting with their competitors,” she said.
Bippert agreed there’s a lot of information exchange during the less formal events like dinner.
“I can’t think of the number of times decisions have been made in more casual settings. Just like us, customers want to establish a personal relationship so as to better accomplish a business function,” he said.
Squires agreed. When conditions are right, communication is two-way.
“It’s absolutely an exchange of information,” he said, explaining that he often asks about food trends in specific countries. Recently a team from Southeast Asia volunteered how important soft white flour has become for breading chicken—a nod to the popularity of the fast food outlet, KFC. But Squires said teams will also reveal challenges they are facing with specific classes. For instance, poor water absorption in the hard red wheats has been a frequent complaint.
Sullivan said she makes a point of asking teams if there is anything outside the tour itinerary that she can do for them. As a result, among other things, she’s taken teams to Walmart for batteries, to Spokane Seed for pulse samples, to Trader Joes to see a trendy grocery store, and to Ferdinand’s on the WSU campus for ice cream.
“Whatever they want to do, if we have the time to do it, we will,” she said.
Although the WGC acts as an intermediary between upcountry elevators and export locations, and does not sell wheat itself, does all the attention to trade teams actually result in increased sales?
Squires believes it does. “Our efforts either maintain a market or grow a market,” he said, citing the example of a recent team from Myanmar.
“The buyer for a mill was currently getting wheat from Canada in containers and she wanted to know whether she could buy wheat from us in containers. Of course, I provided the connection she needed. Not to mention, about 20 percent of the time teams are in the region, they will request samples, which is the first step to becoming a buyer,” he said.
Bippert said sales are rarely a “one and done” experience.
“A shipment of soft white to a Colombian mill was the result of a conversation that began with a trade team visit a couple of years ago. They subsequently sent a technician to the Wheat Marketing Center where a study was conducted using soft white in crackers. We presented the research to executives in Colombia and now we are sending two containers to continue the process. It is not a one and done, but the trade team visit starts the conversation and the thought process that gets the ball rolling to build the momentum that results in a sale”, he said.