In a difficult time for Mid-South agriculture, the July 19 announcement of U.S. rice exports to China moving forward was a welcome relief. With the trade protocol signed, Chinese phytosanitary authorities are looking to inspect U.S. facilities before finally opening the shipping lanes.
How big a deal could this be for the U.S. rice sector?
“In a few years the Chinese market for our rice will be greater than the U.S. industry is currently anticipating," says Dwight Roberts, head of the U.S. Rice Producers Association (USRPA).
It hasn’t been an easy way forward to rice trade between the countries. Way back around 2005, Arkansan and USRPA representative Greg Yielding thought the Chinese market might be cracked. “I kept thinking, ‘Man, China is the top rice producer and consumer in the world. Its population is 1.3 billion and growing. They have to eat, they like rice, and why not get U.S. rice in there?’ Even a couple of years ago, there were reports about China's worries about keeping its population fed.”
Now, after years and many plane rides into China what is Yielding’s reaction to a deal being struck?
“The days before it was announced, the USDA and APHIS had sent out some emails saying there was some imminent good news with the Chinese, to hold tight. So, we knew something was going on and, when the deal was verified, the years of work and trying to get something started really hit home.
“We knew the Chinese wanted to buy U.S. rice and we kept saying it.
“Of course, we’ve known for a year that part of what they wanted was, once the deal is signed, to come back and tour the U.S. mills and processing facilities. They want to make sure we’re doing what we’d promised before opening up fully.
“At this point, I don’t know if they want to check every mill and processing facility listed or if they’ll just choose some at random. We’re just waiting to hear from APHIS on that.”
Are you planning on going back to China anytime soon?
“I’ve been in contact since with folks I’ve come to know, importers, folks in supermarket chains where I’ve done surveys. They’re excited to be importing U.S. pre-packaged milled rice – but the work is never done.
“Honestly, the biggest part was just getting access to their market. Now we have that access, pending the Chinese visits, we’ll be engaged in keeping the static to a minimum and getting our rice on their shelves.”
How might the Mid-South benefit or work its way into the Chinese market?
“From the surveys, southern China is where the long-grain rice is eaten most. Medium-grain is eaten all over the country – although mostly northeast China. There’s enough of a market for everyone growing in the United States.
“But we have to keep in mind they want:
- High-quality rice – let’s call it a U.S. Number Once grade.
- Variety specific rice – no mixing of varieties, no different lengths or widths in the bag.
“Those are things that aren’t negotiable. We’ll have to provide quality, polished rice. If we provide that, there will be a good price paid and that’ll be positive for the whole rice-farming industry in the South and California.”
You’re based in the Bootheel now. Do you expect this to mean an expansion of the rice acreage in the Mid-South?
“It could definitely expand acreage in Missouri and north Arkansas where there’s good water. That will be good for the seed growers, the seed dealers and everyone all the way to those selling pick-ups and tractors and everything else. It’s going to help us.
“We’re starting this with some of the lowest rice acreage we’ve seen in a while. If we can go ahead and get these visits by the Chinese done, we can go ahead and crank things up, get the shipments moving.”
Over the years, we’ve seen that the Chinese are meticulous in their approach to U.S. rice. Do you think the shipments might be made with the 2018 cropping season or could this process bleed over into 2019?
“I think we can get this done by the first of the year. APHIS officials are on this and will be quick to invite the Chinese over for their audit. If things are slick, we could have this done in a matter of weeks.
“When the Chinese wanted to do a pest risk assessment and I carried them around California, Arkansas and Louisiana it didn’t take too long to actually set up. It could be done in a similar timeframe this time.”
Six months ago would you have bet it would be China or Cuba that would be on the verge of accepting U.S. rice?
“I’d have said China and base that on the current (Trump) administration policies. You have to give the current administration credit because this had been languishing for a couple of years – there was an agreement on the protocols but no signatures. Now, we have the necessary things in place and can move forward.
“And I still think we’ll get a financing deal with Cuba – (Arkansas Rep. Rick) Crawford in the House and (Sen. John) Boozman in the Senate have legislation that I think will be passed. If we regain that market, the Mid-South would have a rice boom. There are a lot of good things that are coming.
“Trade is so important. When we export half of what we grow you always have to be looking for the next market to sell to. It’s very important to keep up our relationship with Central America and Mexico and look for the next market to open up, as well.
“One thing that everyone should know is the importance of using tax dollars wisely to help open up avenues of trade. We went over to China the first time just to see if they had interest in U.S. rice. If there wasn’t a market, no problem, but we wanted to know.
“I remember showing up at the U.S. trade office with the Foreign Agriculture Service and met with Ralph Bean in Shanghai. He’s now over in the Philippines. He encouraged me to check into a (U.S.) grant and work with the Chinese on a trading protocol.
“We were able to leverage some Emerging Market Program funds, part of the Foreign Agriculture Service program, and to do the surveys and gather the data to find out if all areas of China might buy U.S. rice. That allowed us to bring the Chinese over here for those first visits. We wouldn’t have been able to do that without the help of that program. It’s a true success story.”
On Yielding’s first trip to China…
“To do the surveys, I went over there kind of blind. We didn’t know what the surveys would show. It could have shown they wanted, for whatever reason, nothing to do with U.S. rice. But that isn’t what happened – we kept getting positive responses and so kept gathering data.
“It was kind of funny because I just packed one piece of luggage with 70 or 80 pounds of rice. That’s how I took it in and then just set up the little stalls in all the supermarket chains after getting their management to agree. It was a lot of pieces to get into place in a lot of cities. I think I ended up in 14 cities all over the place.”