The pearly gray octopus clung to the clear glass with all the might its suckers could muster as the restaurant attendant pried the creature from the bowl. She placed it in a simmering pot of broth in front of me, and I watched it quiver and become part of the soup. Five Seoul businessmen treated me to this delicacy as part of a traditional Korean lunch after a morning-long meeting. We left our shoes outside a screened room, and it seemed like a situation Doris Day might find herself in as I maneuvered carefully in my skirt to swing my legs under the low table. We spent hours enjoying tea, raw beef, sushi, ginger and honey, exotic fruits I am unable to identify, traditional red wine, and getting to know more about our mutual business interests and our unique cultural ways.

Last month, I was honored to join Montana Gov. Steve Bullock, Montana Department of Commerce Director Meg O’Leary, members of their staffs, and Montana business and education leaders on a trade mission to Taiwan and South Korea. The trip allowed participants to meet with governmental officials, non-governmental organization and trade promotion representatives in addition to existing and potential customers and investors. We received extremely warm welcomes wherever we went and, despite a packed schedule of official events and privately arranged business meetings, we were able to find time to enjoy a bit of local culture too.

The combined Taiwan and China market ranks as the third largest buyer of Montana export products, while South Korea holds the position as Montana’s second largest trading partner, just behind Canada. Montana’s total export market is $1.5 billion. Canada makes up nearly 30 percent of the total, while Korea makes up about 14 percent, and the combined Taiwan and China sales represents just over 10 percent of the total. While Canada has seen a decline of 5.5 percent over the last year, Korea has increased imports of Montana products by nearly 22 percent, and Taiwan has increased its imports of Montana products by more than 25 percent. These two markets represent the opportunity of tremendous growth for Montana exports. Last year, Gov. Bullock led a similar trade mission to Beijing.

Along with me, there were seven business delegates representing Montana’s leading export industries, including agriculture, manufacturing and technology. Additionally, the delegation included representatives from higher education and the tourism industry, whose mutual goals are to draw more foreign students, interest and visitors to Montana. Many Montanans viewed news coverage of the trip provided by KRTV/KXLH’s Tim McGonigal, who was also part of the delegation.

Prior to the trip, Gov. Bullock shared his vision of a mission that would build relationships between people interested in conducting business across the Pacific. Dr. Abraham Kim, director of the Maureen and Mike Mansfield Center at the University of Montana and also part of the delegation, provided a cultural overview of doing business in Asia. Participants received briefs from entities such as the Montana World Trade Center about resources available to Montanans seeking to export to foreign markets

The costs of the trip, which were paid for by the business participants on their own, represent an investment in experiences, introductions and cultural connections that would be more challenging to accomplish without the leadership of Gov. Bullock and the expertise of his advisors and staff. The tight six-day schedule included receptions and events with the American Taiwan Institute, Taiwan Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the American Chamber of Commerce, the Korean Importer’s Association and the U.S. Korean Embassy. Among the more formal highlights were introductions to Taiwan’s president, Ma Ying-jeou, and Memorandum of Understanding signings to promote trade with the Taiwan External Trade Development Council and the Korean Importer’s Association.

My goal for this trip was to learn more about the Taiwan and South Korean markets for Montana-grown organic products. As the North American regional director with Kamut International, a Montana-owned and operated company that manages the trademark for KAMUT® Brand khorasan wheat, I have received about one inquiry a week from South Korea since March of this year from potential customers wanting to purchase the grain for the Korean market. The governor’s trade mission offered an opportunity to learn first-hand about the interest coming from Korea. Previously, Kamut International had a small marketing project in Taiwan with what was formerly the Montana-Asia Pacific Trade Office in the Taipei World Trade Center, staffed by Mei Mei Wang. This trade office, opened in 1988, served to promote Montana trade with Taiwan. In 2012, then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer closed the office in an abrupt and controversial manner. The delegation was able to honor Ms. Wang, now a senior commercial specialist with the U.S. Commercial Services, for her years of service to Montana.

In addition to meeting with governmental officials, I was also able to meet with principals at a milling facility in Taiwan and with Kamut International’s exclusive partner in Korea. I was able to see the prominence of KAMUT® wheat on the shelves in a Seoul department store. My message was that Montana grows some of the best conventional and organic agricultural products in the world. Both Taiwan and Korea import grain with the U.S. being the first source for that grain. Both countries indicated that they desire premium, high quality, high-protein, hard red spring wheat for milling and food production. My message was well received. Representatives from both countries were especially interested in premium, organic agricultural products from Montana. Montana’s clean water and air lend Montana products an even higher level of perceived purity.  Montana, we need more organic farm acres, the demand exists.

Each of my business colleagues set up meetings on their own or with assistance from U.S. Commercial Services. These meetings were with existing customers or potential customers. Each of us met with success, not just solidifying relationships by securing trust and developing understanding but developing new projects. For example, Brad Reid with Diversified Plastics of Missoula learned that there is tremendous potential for DP’s industrial plastics in the wastewater treatment facilities in both countries. Adam Stern with Resonon out of Livingston secured at least two new distributors for his high-resolution spectral imaging equipment.

The delegation learned about more than just doing business on the trade mission. We also learned about the cultures of both countries. I do not think any of us will casually pass around business cards without thinking of the formal and careful way in which business cards are exchanged in Asia. It is customary to thoughtfully accept a business card using both hands and to look at the card, mindfully noting the name and position of the person presenting it. We enjoyed delicious food: dumplings, Korean barbeque, noodles, and coconut-tapioca soup. We visited shrines, monuments, and night markets, enjoyed pockets of green in the bustling cities, sang some Karaoke, and made new friendships

I would like to thank Gov. Bullock for the opportunity to learn more about two significant markets for Montana exports. The entire delegation demonstrated focused professionalism that will lead to new economic opportunities for Montanans.