Beaver Creek, Minn., farmer leads trip touring ag facilities

Farm Forum

BEAVER CREEK, Minn. – A group of 27 farmers from across Minnesota returned home recently from a 10-day “See for Yourself” trip to China to tour production agriculture facilities, visit the Shenzhen port and learn how demand for U.S. soybeans will continue to grow to feed China’s expanding population.

Jim Willers, a rural Beaver Creek farmer and Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council communications committee chairman, led the trip March 19-28, with Minnesota Soybean Growers Association President Bruce Schmoll and executive director Tom Slunecka.

China buys roughly 25 percent of the U.S. soybeans exported annually and 18 percent of soybeans exported worldwide, resulting in a $26 billion impact each year on the world economy, said Willers. The goal of the See For Yourself trip was to educate Minnesota farmers about the impact China makes on the state and U.S. soybean industry. This was the second consecutive year the MSR&PC sponsored a farmer trip to China.

“They see where their soybeans go, how they are used and how the checkoff has helped grow the market in China,” Willers said on April 1.

Upon arrival in Beijing, the group spent half a day in meetings, learning about China’s use of soybeans from representatives of the U.S. Embassy Counsel for Agriculture in China and the U.S. Soybean Export Federation. They also receive updates on Chinese government affairs.

Willers said they toured a 3,500-head dairy farm east of Beijing that is planning to expand to 4,000 cows and, while there, say round bales that had been imported from California. The dairy did milk processing onsite and gave the Minnesota farmers a taste of fresh milk and yogurt produced there.

“They claim the younger population has a growing want of dairy products,” he added.

In Yantia, the group toured a small soy ingredient plant where lecithin and soy powder — high valued specialty products — are manufactured. They also visited Yisheng, a breeding stock producer of chickens, pork and dairy. The company imports some of its 2.5 million chickens from the U.S.

“It was beautiful grounds, and hooked up to all this they had a methane digester, so they were basically self-energy efficient,” Willers said.

The growth in China was evident everywhere they looked, said Willers.

“While we were riding bus, I bet we saw 1,000 buildings being constructed — mixed in among the old and the new, and then they farm everything in between,” Willers said. “These were all high-rise apartments — big, tall buildings. I think they expect people to buy and move there.”

From Yantia, the group travelled approximately 1,100 miles south to Shenzhen, China. The population of Shenzhen has grown from 50,000 people 20 years ago to 14 million today, and is anticipated to double in population in the next 10 years.

Outside of Shenzhen, they visited a feed manufacturer that also operates a fish farm. As a port city situated along the Pearl River, Willers said fish farming was the primary industry. Fish are fed a diet rich in protein, including soybeans, which has greatly improved the efficiency in production. Instead of taking more than a year to grow fish to a marketable size, they now are ready in six months.

“The fish farms there are as thick as corn fields around here,” Willers said.

During a tour of the port at Shenzhen, Willers said they learned of plans by the Chinese to build three new large soybean crushing plants within the next three years. The additions are anticipated to double the soybean imports at that port, already the fourth largest in the world and the second largest in China.

More focus is being placed on soybean processing because of the growing demand in China for meat consumption.

“They have seven times more hogs than we do now and they want more meat — more chicken, more pork,” Willers said. “Livestock producers don’t pay any income tax there as an incentive to grow more meat.”

China plans to increase its corn imports by fall, and Willers said the chicken breeds they spoke with all planned to double their output within the next three years.

“They all want to double in three to four years — they don’t wait for permits, they just do it,” he added.

The Minnesota farmers spent their final day in China seeing the sights of Hong Kong.

The “See for Yourself” program has taken Minnesota soybean farmers to several different countries, in addition to touring soybean processors and ports in the U.S.

“We hope the participants learn how we’re investing their checkoff dollars, where they’re going and the results,” Willers said.

The “See for Yourself” program was established several years ago as an evaluation tour for the soybean checkoff’s international marketing programs. Checkoff programs must be evaluated by those who pay into the program and the “See for Yourself” program is one way to do that.

Since 1980, the nationwide soybean checkoff has invested $90 million in China. Willers said the industry has had a good return on its investment.

“We opened up our first soybean office in a foreign country in China,” he said. “Back in 1980, China was exporting soybeans. We went in and showed them how to use the protein to feed pork, feed fish. We showed them the efficiency and how they could increase their meat production by feeding soybeans.

“It’s got a life of its own now. Now, we have to show them that we have better soybeans than South America,” he added with a laugh. “They do believe we have better amino acids (in our soybeans) — better than South America.”