Agriculture import/export guide for Australia

If you've considered launching an agricultural import/export business, here's where to start.

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Exporting agricultural goods was worth $44.7 billion in 2016, making up 14% of Australia's total exports. You can be in on that profit by starting your own trading company. From fruits and vegetables to tree nuts and meat – diets worldwide rely on imports and exports. You can build a thriving agricultural business that facilitates trade around the world.

Types of import/export businesses

There are three basic types of import/export businesses. Starting out, it's a good idea to pursue the one that most interests you.

Export management company

An export management company (EMC) helps a company in Australia export its agricultural goods. It manages the details of hiring distributors, developing marketing materials and preparing shipping logistics.

Export trading company

An export trading company (ETC) researches the needs of foreign buyers and finds domestic companies to meet those needs.

Import/export merchant (or free agent)

Import/export merchants buy merchandise from a manufacturer – foreign or domestic – then resells that merchandise around the world. Although there's heavier risk involved in being a free agent, you can potentially earn higher profits when you cut out the middlemen.

Start-up costs for an agriculture import/export business

You can start your own import/export business with little up-front cost. At a minimum, you'll need a phone and reliable Internet connection. You may also want to invest in business cards, a website and a fax machine. It's helpful to hire somebody to take care of branding, including creating a unique business logo.

Narrowing your market focus and target customer

Once you've decided the type of agricultural import/export business you want to run and you've figured out the start-up costs, it's time to narrow your market focus. By niching down, you can concentrate on a market you can serve best.

As you spend time researching profitable niches, think about:

  • The customers you want to serve
  • Areas of the world you'll target
  • Types of agricultural products you'll offer

Your target customer will be someone who wants to trade globally by either selling or buying fruits, vegetables and other agricultural goods overseas or from international sources.

Types of agricultural goods

To meet the needs of your target customer, you need to choose the type of agricultural products you'll offer. Choose something that you have the most experience with. For instance, do you know about the dairy industry? Have you worked with cereals, spices or coffee? Do you know about packing, storing and transporting meat or live animals?

Existing experience with your target area is a plus, but having passion for it widens your advantage. You'll understand the jargon of your niche and you may already have contacts.

The agriculture market

  • Fruits, vegetables and fibres
  • Food and live animals
  • Meat and meat preparation
  • Fish, crustaceans and mollusks
  • Dairy products and eggs
  • Cereal and cereal preparations
  • Coffee, tea, cocoa and spices
  • Animal feed

Narrowing down target countries

Identify the countries you want to do business with by thinking about your competitive advantages:

  • Do you speak a foreign language?
  • Do you have connections abroad?
  • Have you lived overseas before?
  • Have you travelled extensively to a particular country?
  • Do you love the culture of a certain country and know a lot about it?

Once you've narrowed your list of target countries, investigate each country's requirements for conducting business – such as tariffs, registration and other documents.

Educating yourself before making a final decision can affect your competitive edge. Ask questions of your target country's foreign embassy or consulate, and visit the Australian Department of Agriculture and Water Resources' website to learn more.

Did you know?

Australia's top export markets
1. China
2. Japan
3. United States
4. South Korea
5. Indonesia
6. India
7. New Zealand
8. Vietnam
9. Hong Kong
10. Singapore

Australia's top agricultural exports
1. Beef
2. Wheat
3. Meat (not including beef)
4. Wool
5. Alcohol
6. Sugars, molasses and honey
7. Vegetables
8. Dairy
9. Live animals (not including seafood)
10. Fruit and nuts

Source: Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, 2016

Registration and licences

Imports

Australia can have some strict laws regarding importing plant and animal products. You can see if you can import your goods by searching the Biosecurity Import Conditions system (BICON). This database will also tell you what permits you might need, which you need to organise in advance.

Here's an example of two popular agricultural imports and what BICON says about them, accurate at the time of writing.

ItemPermit needed?Further information
CoffeeNoThe beans will need to be cleaned of all other debris and insects
SalmonYesYou'll have to submit a permit through the Department of Agriculture and Water Resources

Exports

The Department of Agriculture and Water Resources controls all exports and you'll need to register your export business with them. This involves all parts of the process – like preparation, handling and storage – being approved by the department.

You can get your export documents and permits for most agricultural products online through the Export Documentation System (EXDOC).

Charging for your services

Import/export businesses typically charge based on commission or retainer.

Commission structure

With a commission structure, you're paid a percentage of any trade deal you close – usually around 10%. For example, if you sell animal feed for $1,500, you'll make a $150 commission. On top of your commission, you'll also want to charge for expenses like packaging and shipping.

Retainer model

On a retainer model, your clients pay you a monthly fee to be on call when they need your services. To find the right amount for your retainer, consider your costs. These may include labour, supplies and overheads.

An alternative model

Beyond a commission or retainer structure, you can simply buy dairy products and sell them. In this case, your revenue will come from the profit you make from selling merchandise.

Which business model should you choose?

A rule of thumb is to pick a commission model if you think a product will be easy to sell. However, if you think a product will be difficult to sell, price your business based on a retainer.

The thinking is if you'll sell a lot of product, you want to be paid based on performance. On the other hand, if you believe sales will be slow, using a retainer model could ensure that you'll be paid even in the downtime.

Finally, if you're confident in your ability to sell products, you don't have to negotiate a payment structure with manufacturers. All you'll have to negotiate is how much you'll buy the product for and then find a way to profit from the merchandise.

Get more tips on starting a business

International billing and payments

Your new business will require you to make and receive international payments, which means you'll make transactions between currencies and across borders.

You can safely and affordably manage your business payments – with lower fees and stronger exchange rates – by comparing the services of a money transfer specialist.

Compare international money transfer options for importing and exporting agricultural products

Min. Transfer Amount Transfer Speed Online Transfer Fee Rate Amount Received Description CTA Details
AUD 3,000 1 day AUD 0.00 0.673 USD
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Global Reach will match any competitor's exchange rates. Conditions apply.
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6,726
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AUD 250 1 day AUD 0.00 0.672 USD
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AUD 250 1 - 2 days AUD 0.00 0.672 USD
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AUD 1 1 day AUD 0.00 0.669 USD
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AUD 1 Within an hour AUD 3.99 0.667 USD
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Compare up to 4 providers

The "Rate" and "Amount Received" displayed are indicative rates that have been supplied by each brand or gathered by Finder.

Exchange rates are volatile and change often. As a result, the exchange rate listed on Finder may vary to the actual exchange rate quoted for the brand. Please confirm the actual exchange rate and mention "Finder" before you commit to a brand.

Shipping the goods

You'll be sending and receiving goods from other countries, so you'll need to arrange shipping details.

First, contact a freight forwarder, a company that helps you transport agricultural goods safely and efficiently. They will help you handle the logistics of completing shipping documents, finding cargo space and securing cargo insurance.

Find a freight forwarder by looking in state-specific business directories.

After you've hired one, read our shipping guides to learn how to ship the merchandise.
Laws and legal documents when dealing with large money transfers

Risks and how to avoid them

Unpredictable shipping logistics

Needless to say, your success hinges on whether you can ship goods safely and efficiently. If you're exporting fruits and vegetables, for example, you're responsible for ensuring they leave your local port and arrive at the correct destination on time.

You'll also need to account for anything else that could go wrong, such as damage to the cargo. Staying organised and partnering with a reputable freight forwarder will help you ship goods without a hitch.

Not knowing enough about the agriculture market

It's a good idea to thoroughly research the market before entering this business, though even that may not be enough.

Consider hiring experts who understand the tastes and cultures of your specific markets. You'll need to sell products that resonate in countries you're unfamiliar with.

Running into problems at the border

Customs rules aren't uniform throughout the world. Instead, you'll encounter a mass of different regulations while transporting agricultural goods. To avoid drowning in a swamp of border regulations, hire experts in customs law and trade compliance.

Bottom line

The agricultural import/export business is for people who love building relationships in other countries, and success requires an organised mind that can handle logistics. When dealing with these types of products, a willingness to thoroughly comply with relevant regulations is a must.

If you have these qualities, take the plunge into creating a thriving agricultural import/export business.

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Picture: Shutterstock

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