Barcelona Nut is selling its Baltimore-manufactured products in Korean and Chinese markets. StoneHedge Farms popcorn — made in Dover, Pa. — is going in more directions, from Asia to Europe to South America.

Communication is only one challenge in international markets, Tsonis said. But the potential is so big, he said, it doesn't make sense to ignore foreign business.

Some companies — Barcelona Nut included — have turned to trade-assistance groups to get a toehold in new markets. The Southern United States Trade Association, for instance, connects smaller food and agriculture firms in Maryland and the South with foreign players and federal aid.

Companies can qualify to have half their international marketing costs reimbursed through a U.S. Department of Agriculture program. They can also sign up for association-organized overseas trade missions and domestic events with international buyers.

The trade association put on an event Thursday in Baltimore alongside the Natural Products Expo East convention, for U.S. companies to get one-on-one time with Chinese and Korean buyers.

"If nothing else, they're getting feedback," said Danielle Viguerie, the association's marketing and communications director. "But also, we see a lot of direct sales coming out of these trade missions."

Allied International, the Glen Burnie food products company, sent employees to 11 international trade shows last year with the trade group's help. This year, they've been to events in Japan, China, Australia, South Africa and the United Arab Emirates.

Shaun Akhavan, Allied's director of exports, said Allied executives tried to crack into international markets on their own in 2008 and found it far too complex and expensive for a small company. (The firm employs 21 today.) He said he appreciates the trade group's help in setting up meetings, providing interpreters and keeping costs down.

Allied sells several hundred items, from cereal to snacks, that contract manufacturers make for the company under brands such as Sunrise Valley and Forrelli. Within the United States, the products go to discounters, and the competition on price is tough, Akhavan said.

The international market, he said, is actually an easier sell.

"I think anybody that's in business today can benefit from exports," he said. "They should not shy away."