Global Reach

Features - Cover Feature

North Carolina aims to open trade route with China

October 25, 2011

A group of green-industry professionals from Shanghai, China, recently visited North Carolina, opening the door for a horticultural relationship. The trade delegation traveled to the United States to find new ornamental plants for China's landscape industry.

A trade route between North Carolina and China would be a boon for the state's growers. And Peter Thornton, assistant director of international marketing at the North Carolina Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services (NCDACS), is mapping out a plan. He's in the early stages of due diligence. Thornton and his staff are following up with the group, translating lots of notes and sending invitations for the delegation to return.

"This is an ongoing project that has to be sustained over time to see success," he said. "You don't do million-dollar sales with someone you just met. You develop a relationship."

Thornton's ultimate goal is for North Carolina to be home to an international distributorship network.

"We need a company who can consolidate product, get the phytosanitary certificates and ship the product," he said. "North Carolina could be very competitive if we can make this happen."

North Carolina natives
The delegation was made up of three landscape architects, two seed company representatives, someone from the Shanghai Forestry Station and an online business-to-business nursery products retailer. One of their stops was Carolina Native Nursery in Asheville, N.C. Owner Bill Jones was brimming with excitement, like a child on Christmas morning.

(L-R) Bill Jones, Rob Ray and Shelby Singleton of Carolina Native Nursery, hosted a trade delegation from Shanghai, China. The delegation was interested in the botanical diversity of the Appalachian Mountains.

"It was very exciting," Jones said. "This was a unique opportunity to meet fellow plant enthusiasts truly from across the globe."

Jones shared with the group how his company produces fully rooted native azaleas from seed in 3-gallon pots in three years. They toured the greenhouse where the seedling flats are produced.

"The group was amazed at the number of seedlings one flat contained, and the number of liners that were available," Jones said. "They seemed impressed by the size of the liners – in Rootmaker flats of 18 cells – compared to the plants still in the seed flats."

Jones proudly showed his 12 varieties of azaleas, four native rhodies and Pieris floribunda – none of which the group had ever seen.

Jones and his team shared production techniques with the Chinese delegation. The nursery grows fully rooted native azaleas from seed in 3-gallon pots in three years.


"We discovered that many families in China use potted rhododendrons in their homes for decoration as part of their Chinese New Year celebration," Jones said.

A frequent question from the group was how plants sequester and filter pollution – a topic Jones said he'd have to research that further.

Jones is eager to develop relationships with not only the participants of the delegation, but other companies in China. But he realizes it's a slow process.

"Like all sales processes, having a conversation with potential clients, finding out their needs and understanding their market takes time," Jones said. "Even though there are many technical issues related to trading with China, they can be managed. We know the sales process will be a long one, but we certainly look forward to continuing our efforts in this direction."

Market research
Thornton and his staff at the NCDACS will help growers sift through the process of making and continuing international relationships.

"Growers that can diversify into the international market will be much more sustainable," Thornton said.

Thornton has asked the Southern United States Trade Association to conduct a study on the differences and the similarities of the horticultural markets in China and in the United States. He hopes to have some solid data by the end of the year.

It takes a better understanding of the Chinese markets to identify the opportunities, said Tom Ranney of North Carolina State University's Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center. Ranney, a globe-trekking plant hunter, recognizes the hurdles that must be overcome to ensure a successful business exchange. "The first step is building relationships," Ranney said. "Then we need to learn what products are in demand, and how we can best manage our intellectual property."

The delegation also visited Ranney, where they saw dogwoods, azaleas and flowering quince hybrids.

"China is a huge market. But where can we compete successfully? Export and shipping costs are substantial. It may not be economical in the long term to send finished plants from here to China. But there could be niches," Ranney said.



The Shanghai trade delegation arrived in Asheville, N.C., Saturday, Aug. 27, after stops in Oregon and Chicago.

The group's participants were:

  • Yu Liping, senior engineer at Shanghai Landscape Architecture Design Institute. The institute's design team has worked on projects for the Shanghai municipal government and in the private sector.
  • Cai Xiangyang, deputy general manager at Zhejiang Hongyue Seed. Hongyue Seed is one of the biggest private importers and distributors of flower and grass seeds in China. Its total import value in 2010 was about $30 million.
  • Qian Haizhong, general manager of Shanghai Yuanyi Seedling. Shanghai Yuanyi is one of the biggest seedling suppliers in China. It is a professional breeder of commercial seedlings, and its annual purchase value of seeds is around $1.6 million.
  • Gu Qin, secretary general of Shanghai Society of Landscape Studies. The Shanghai Society of Landscape Studies is a state-approved non-profit academic society of more than 2,000 members. Qin was a member of the panel that developed the first Landscape Architects National Occupational Standards in 2006.
  • Wang Wenwen, dean of Shanghai Woyi Vocational Training School. Along with the Shanghai Society of Landscape Studies, the school provides training and certification service to landscape architects in Shanghai.
  • Weng Lingwei, general manager of Garden Online, Shanghai JT Technology. Garden Online is a B2B website for nursery products.


For more: NCDACS International Trade Office, Carolina Native Nursery, Mountain Horticultural Crops Research & Extension Center,