'Did It Work?': Promoting Vermont Food Products In Japan

May 15, 2019

In 2015, Vermont's Agency of Agriculture, Food & Markets secured $25,000 from a federal grant to help fund a trade mission to Japan. Leaders of eight small food producers, along with a few government employees, headed to Tokyo for four days in October 2016.

The goal was to drum up new business in an international market. So, a few years later, have those companies made sales to Japan?

VPR's Did It Work? series looks at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.

The Initiative

Pretty much every year the state of Vermont gets some funding from the federal government, called the Specialty Crop Block Grant. The Agency of Agriculture then spreads that money around to different entities to bolster specialty crops, such as maple syrup, fruit and berries. 

In 2015, Chelsea Bardot Lewis, then the head of business development at the agency, led an effort to secure $25,000 of that grant to market Vermont specialty foods in Japan.

Why Japan? Bardot Lewis said the idea came from some maple producers in Vermont. It turns out Japan consumes a lot of maple syrup.

"So Japan being the third-largest market for maple syrup in the world, we started talking about what we could do in Japan," Bardot Lewis said. "Certainly there is a willingness to spend among the Japanese consumer generally for high-quality, pure product, but there wasn't a lot of awareness about Vermont — and the Canadians have really beat us to the international market, and there is a story that if it's not Canadian maple syrup then it's fake."

What's one way to let Japanese consumers know that a small U.S. state just south of Canada also makes real maple syrup? Go there and tell them.

Runamok Maple's Curt Alpeter, right, sits with a translator at an event in Japan in October 2016 where a group of Vermont companies showcased their products to potential retailers and distributors. The trip was funded by $25,000 from a federal grant.
Credit Curt Alpeter, Runamok Maple / Courtesy
What Happened

This grant had specific goals: Within three years, increase sales to Japan for eight small food producers by $200,000. The second goal was to hit $500,000 in sales within five years.

Those eight Vermont producers tapped for the initiative were:

  • Vermont Harvest
  • Shacksbury Cider
  • Spring Brook Farm
  • Smith & Salmon (Sap!)
  • Caledonia Spirits
  • Runamok Maple
  • Sugar Bob's Finest Kind
  • Dorset Maple Reserve

And these companies were essentially starting from scratch in the Japanese market; just one of the businesses went into the trip with any sales to Japan, and those were less than $10,000 per year.

Bardot Lewis got the federal grant and booked a contractor in Japan who could connect Vermont companies to potential buyers.

"She had identified pretty early on that there are some really nice synergies between Japan and Vermont: the mountains, the interest in pure and artisanal products," Bardot Lewis said.

There are also some big Vermont brands already established in Japan, including Ben & Jerry's and Burton Snowboards. Also, by coincidence, one of the most popular curry brands in Japan is called Vermont Curry (Seven Days recently looked into how that name came about).

A networking event held during the trip that a group of Vermont food producers took to Japan for four days in October 2016. The goal was to increase the producers' sales to Japan over three years.
Credit Curt Alpeter, Runamok Maple / Courtesy

Bardot Lewis, along with representatives of the food companies and a few other government officials, headed to Tokyo for four days in late October 2016. There were seminars, meetings with potential buyers and a “taste of the Green Mountains” event where companies showcased their products at a local restaurant.

"There were a number of influencers there, social media, other PR folks, as well as some buyers," Bardot Lewis said.

Just one company made a sale during the trip, according to Bardot Lewis. And the whole group learned something in the process: Export sales to Japan take a long time.

"Particularly, apparently in the Japanese market, it's very relationship driven," Bardot Lewis said.

Now, years after that trip, Shacksbury Cider co-founder David Dolginow said the Vergennes-based company just sent off its first shipment with a Japanese distributor in the last few weeks.

"So I suspect right now it's somewhere in the middle of the Pacific," Dolginow said, "which is really an exciting thing to imagine: five pallets of our cider, making their way to Japan."

David Dolginow, co-founder of Shacksbury Cider, said his company just recently made a sale to a Japanese distributor, nearly three years after a state-sponsored trade mission.
Credit Henry Epp / VPR

Shacksbury was one of the eight Vermont businesses on the trip in 2016, but Dolginow said there are several reasons it’s taken three years to actually sell to Japan. They’ve had other priorities, he said, like keeping up with demand in the United States. Plus it took a while to find the right Japanese distributor. But they finally found one who can handle everything once their pallets of cider leave Vergennes.

"From the point in which they get put onto the truck and trucked across the country, to then get put onto a cargo ship, to then be shipped across the ocean, to then be put on into a warehouse in Japan, and shipped on smaller trucks all throughout Japan, that whole process is managed by Nagano Trading," Dolginow said.

Shacksbury's first shipment with Nagano Trading is worth about $15,000.

Did It Work?

In a report shortly after the trip, the Vermont Agency of Agriculture said the companies projected $70,000 in initial sales, and the report promised to follow up a year on.

However, grant reports from subsequent years don’t show any evidence that one-year follow-up ever occurred. A current agency official said the agency doesn’t have any further information beyond the grant reports.

So, if the state government didn’t track it, who knows how many sales were made to Japan after this trip? Well, the companies do. Here's what each company told VPR about their sales to Japanese distributors since 2016:

  • Vermont Harvest: No sales.
  • Shacksbury Cider: $15,000 in sales, starting in 2019.
  • Spring Brook Farm: No sales.
  • Smith & Salmon (Sap!): No sales.
  • Caledonia Spirits: $17,000 in sales between 2013 and 2016; $20,000 since 2017.
  • Runamok Maple: No sales.
  • Sugar Bob's Finest Kind: $20,000 in sales, starting in 2017.
  • Dorset Maple Reserve: Did not respond to requests for comment.

In total, companies said they've made about $55,000 in sales to Japan since the October 2016 trip. The goal of the grant was to increase sales by $200,000 within three years, so with just a few months to go before the three-year mark, sales have apparently fallen well short of that financial target.

But, it does mean some extra money is coming in to growing companies like Shacksbury Cider. Dolginow said the trip was a catalyst for the company to reach a new market.

"So, the tens of thousands of dollars that that will be for our company, you know, will translate to us paying our workers here and paying our taxes here and growing our business here in Vermont," Dolginow said.

As for those other companies, many of them are still optimistic they’ll eventually make sales, too. Every businessperson who spoke who spoke with VPR, even the ones who haven’t made sales, said the trip to Japan was worth it.

As Curt Alpeter, of Runamok Maple, put it: "It was an opportunity for us to do something that we could never have done, you know, independently."

Credit Meg Malone / VPR

While we hear a lot about new initiatives or funding when first announced, it's not always as easy to figure out whether they lived up to their promises down the line — and if they were a good use of taxpayer money. In VPR's Did It Work? series, we're following up at a sampling of publicly-funded initiatives in Vermont of the past several years. More from the series here.