Chinese movie star Gao Yuan Yuan ambled in front of blooming almond trees, smelled the flowers, learned about pollination and even got stung by a bee _ all while two Chinese television crews filmed her for a documentary and television series focused on California's almond country.
The almond industry has hired Gao as its ambassador in China, and its effort is just one of many California nut growers are making to capture new markets in developing countries. U.S. farm exports reached an all-time high of $115.8 billion last year, and experts say developing nations such as China and India have huge potential for future growth.
China surpassed Canada to emerge as the top market for U.S. agricultural exports last year with $17.5 billion in sales, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
"Everybody sees the Asia Pacific region as the place to be in the foreseeable future and is trying to establish a presence there to be a player in those emerging markets," said Dr. Mechel Paggi, director of the Center for Agricultural Business at California State University, Fresno.
California's agricultural exports have increased steadily for the past seven years, even through the recession, and the most rapid growth has been in nut sales. Almonds, walnuts and pistachios are now some of state's top exports. But experts say that if the specialty crop industry hopes to continue that trend, it will need smart marketing to get people to eat more of their products.
"You have to take in cultural considerations," said Becky Sereno, international marketing specialist for the Almond Board of California. "There are deep rooted cultural and even medicinal traditions, connotations and perceptions in these cultures."
Hence, the hiring of movie stars such as Gao. People in their home countries feel a connection to them, and they "portray an image of a healthy, successful life. People look up to them as somebody they aspire to be," Sereno said.
The Almond Board paid for Gao's trip to the orchards near Bakersfield this month so she could participate in the shooting of the documentary and TV series. She's also featured in print ads and billboards the group has paid to have installed in bus shelters and print media and may appear in a series of TV commercials.
A similar campaign is ongoing in India, where the Almond Board hired Bollywood actress Karisma Kapoor to appear in television spots clad in a traditional Hindu sari during the fall festival season.
The Almond Board ramped up its marketing in Asia in response to record shipments in recent years, Sereno said. China and India were among the top four almond export destinations last year. Exports to China have risen from 16 million to 133 million pounds over the past five years.
Other nut growers also are targeting Asian consumers. The Western Pistachio Association has been pushing sales with billboards and in-store displays and promotions, and it recently announced that Miss California Arianna Afsar, who has adopted pistachios as her official snack, will do a marketing tour in Asia this year. Asfar, a former contestant on Fox's "American Idol," is part Bengali.
Like almonds, pistachio exports have expanded rapidly: Sales to China have gone from $5 million to $109 million in six years, said Judy Hirigoyen, the pistachio association's global marketing director. California overtook Iran as the world's No. 1 pistachio exporter in 2008, when Iran experienced a severe freeze.
An increased interest in health among Asia's growing middle class has helped boost sales of nuts and other specialty crops, and marketers are tapping into that, said Jim Zion of Clovis-based Meridian Nut Growers and chairman of the Western Pistachio Association.
But they still have challenges to overcome. In India, where there is no tradition of snacking, the Almond Board has tried to introduce both the idea of snacking and its nuts as a healthy convenience food. Traditionally, people in India have given almonds as gifts or used them in ceremonies and in traditional desserts.
The California Walnut Board and Commission, which credits strong growth in China and Turkey for the sharp increase in walnut exports in the past two years, also is trying to change consumers' behavior. Walnuts have traditionally been eaten in China as sweet or salt-washed snacks. The Walnut Board has hired chefs to teach bakers and cooks in the hotel and restaurant industries how to cook with raw walnuts.
Along with the cultural differences, exporters face high tariffs, electricity shortages and infrastructure that makes delivery difficult, Paggi said. But he predicted as these issues are addressed, more California industries will look to sell in Asia.
"There's more middle class consumers in China," Paggi said, "than there are people in the U.S. _ and that number is growing all the time."