By Jeff Ayres/The Clarion-Ledger
JACKSON — In a growing global economy, it’s about as easy to find Sanderson Farms products in China and Europe as it is in the poultry producer’s home base of Laurel.
Farm-raised catfish from Mississippi is turning up in grocery stores in Canada’s largest cities.
The agriculture sector of Mississippi’s economy is exporting goods internationally, creating new revenue streams for companies in a recession and a competitive marketplace where every dollar counts.
The U.S. Department of Agriculture recently gave $234.5 million to 70 U.S. trade organizations, including several supporting Mississippi producers, to help promote American products overseas.
“A (healthier) company is one that engages in international trade,” said John Henry Jackson, international trade specialist for the Mississippi Development Authority. “Mississippi has a really diverse array of products and companies that export.”
Of the state’s 7.3 billion in exported goods, nearly $1.5 billion were from agriculture related products.
Sanderson Farms exported $177 million — 10 percent of its total revenue- in chicken in fiscal 2009. China, Russia and Mexico are the company’s top foreign customers, said Herbie Hover, the company’s manager of export sales.
Dark-meat products, such as chicken feet, are huge in China and cheaper internationally than white-meat foods, Hoover said.
“It is a good market for us, a very important (part of business),” he said.
Dark meat commands about 35 to 45 cents per pound internationally, compared to $1.40 per pound for white meat, said Don Ellen, chairman of the USA Poultry and Egg Export Council.
Because of increasing demand in places such as China and Russia, chicken feet prices have risen from about 14 cents per pound in the early 1990s to 60 to 80 cents per pound currently, he said.
“It’s astronomical, the amount of business (chicken feet generate overseas),” Ellen said.
The overall dollar amount of meat exported from Mississippi to other countries was $351.7 million from January through November 2009 compared to $271 million in all of 2008, according to MDA. (2 of 2)
Fish and seafood exports grew to almost $964,000 through November 2009, MDA reports.
Mississippi is known worldwide for its farm-raised catfish. Catfish cultivated in the state and elsewhere in the U.S. is becoming popular in Canada.
“It’s probably the best country for a first-time exporter to enter,” said Roger Barlow, president of The Catfish Institute, a Ridgeland-based organization that promotes the catfish industry.
“We share a common border. We share a common language, for the most part.”
Of the 1 million pounds of U.S. catfish exported to Canada in 2009, roughly half came from Mississippi, said Ken Berger, the institute’s Canadian representative.
About 90 percent of catfish sold in Canada is found at retailers. Some restaurants will order the fish when they host Mardi Gras-themed promotions, Berger said.
Last year, Canadian retailers installed Nielsen scanning data, the same type that measures music sales, so they could track how much of each type of fish they sell, he said.
“That, in itself, said something. It’s on the radar,” Berger said.
While the interconnected economy can open up new markets, it can also mean problems when foreign economies falter. The recession that mushroomed in the U.S. starting in 2007 has spread to other parts of the world.
The overall amount of goods exported from Mississippi was down 16.5 percent through November 2009, MDA’s Jackson said.
And diplomatic forces can have an influence on exports that rivals day-to-day market conditions.
Ellen said the United States and Chinese governments are discussing extra duties and trade restrictions the latter wants to put on goods exported to the country, while Russia wants egg and poultry producers to tighten their processing techniques. Both actions could impact exports’ performance, but Ellen said in each case he feels a workable solution can be found.