Why are importers in Indonesia eager to purchase beehives from Ohio and seafood from Seattle? For the U.S. brand, which signifies quality and safety.

“The buyers I met told me my honey products, like the cinnamon honey, were the best quality they’ve ever seen,” said Jim Lyons, owner of That Crazy Bee Guy, based in Cleveland, who went on a recent U.S.-sponsored trade mission to Jakarta. Importers from Malaysia and the Philippines also were included in the July 16–19 mission.

“There is a strong demand for U.S. seafood in the region,” said Bill Marinelli of Seattle-based Marinelli Shellfish, who said he made valuable new contacts from the nearly 250 business-to-business meetings that brought together buyers and sellers. On its website, the company says its business relationships in Asia are “almost as extensive as they are in the United States, and every bit as important.”

Bees on a honeycomb (© Alamy/USDA)
Bees, and the honey they produce, are popular U.S. exports. (© Alamy/USDA)

A major market for U.S. agricultural products, Southeast Asian consumers want more American seafood, soybeans, cotton, wheat, dairy — and even bees.

Total sales of U.S. food products in the region have increased 68 percent over the last 10 years, totaling $11.8 billion in 2017, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. U.S. bees contributed their share too. American beekeepers managed more than 2.7 million bee colonies in 2017. Those hives produced nearly 68 million kilograms of honey, of which 4.5 million kilograms were exported worldwide.

It’s the quality of U.S. products driving the demand, said U.S. agricultural official Ted McKinney, leader of the trade mission to Indonesia. The trip was the seventh U.S. trade mission so far this year connecting American agricultural business and government leaders with importers around the world. Last year’s trade missions included trips to Brazil and India.

“They really, really want more U.S. products,” said McKinney, who took the group to a Jakarta supermarket selling U.S. products to speak with the managers there. McKinney said he continues to be “amazed” by their response to the U.S. brand. “When people have U.S. products, they know it is A, quality and B, safe,” he said.

Man sorting soybeans (© Aman Rochman/AFP/Getty Images)
A worker processes soybeans imported from the U.S. into a traditional Indonesian food called tempeh. Indonesia buys most of its soybeans from the United States. (© Aman Rochman/AFP/Getty Images)

Indonesia, Malaysia, Vietnam, Thailand and the Philippines account for more than half of the recent spike in U.S. agricultural imports to the region.

Indonesia rising

U.S. agricultural exports to Indonesia — the most populous country in Southeast Asia — totaled nearly $2.9 billion in 2017, an 8 percent increase from the previous year, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.

Indonesia’s economy is growing, with its gross domestic product growth averaging about 5 percent annually. So too are its middle class and its consumer purchasing power. Shoppers there are eager for high-quality, healthy and safe products — all associated with U.S. brands.   

“They were in awe of our all-natural, organic honey products and especially my knowledge about raising bees,” said Lyons, who was invited to return to Indonesia in October 2018 to be a guest speaker at a regional bee convention. “They wanted everything I was selling: bees, beehives, bee products and training [in] how to rear bees. The outlook is really bright in Indonesia,” he said.