Could the Chinese government soon open ports to U.S. milled rice imports? In mid-August, indications are that will happen and, considering the size of China’s prospering, rice-eating class, the U.S. rice industry stands to gain a massive market.

An indicator of which way the Chinese government is leaning: in September, it will send delegation to the United States for a series of tours. The delegation will visit California and Mid-South rice farms, mills, and research facilities before traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. trade officials and legislators.

The opening of the Chinese rice market has not been an exercise for the impatient. Since 2005, Greg Yielding, head of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, has spearheaded U.S. Rice Producers Association efforts to find a way through Chinese bureaucracy and myriad trade laws, along with language and cultural barriers.

In 2008, Yielding was fresh off a trip to China where he’d set up grocery store surveys and rice-tasting booths. Having garnered positive results from both, Yielding was enthusiastic. “China doesn't have an emerging middle class — it's already viable. Money is all over. Everything we're wearing and using is made there. They're taking our money and improving their living conditions.”

Now, three years later and having recently finalized the Chinese delegation's touring schedule, Yielding has only amped up expectations for Chinese acceptance of U.S. rice. "If you're a rice farmer or miller, how can you not be excited by the prospect of selling to the Chinese? This is a huge opportunity for all of us, including the Chinese who'll be able to buy a U.S. product that's second to none.

"This really is one of the most important things, in terms of agricultural exports, in years. This could be a huge market opening for us. And it could help our trade deficit with China.”

Yielding – who lauds USDA Agriculture Trade Office (ATO) employees, the Foreign Agriculture Service, and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in helping bring the market-opening process forward – recently spoke with Farm Press about the long process to open markets, what the Chinese want from U.S. rice and what to expect in coming months. Among his comments:

On what’s happened between 2008 and now…

“Since (the last DFPress story in September 2008), we continued to do U.S. rice promotions and surveys.

“We traveled to Shanghai and surveyed folks on not only long-grain but also medium-grain – Neptune and Jupiter. The surveys had even better results: 80-plus percent of folks liked the medium-grain. The long-grain results stayed around the high 70s.

“So, we were still seeing the same positive survey results. The Chinese supermarkets and importers kept saying they want U.S. rice on the shelves. We’d sit down with them and explain we need market access from their government.

“At the same time, we were working with APHIS employees, who were sending letters to the Chinese asking for market access and explaining that a pest-risk assessment wouldn’t be necessary for milled U.S. rice.

“We also were working with grants provided by the Emerging Markets Program for the USDA and Foreign Agriculture Service. There are now five ATO offices in China. I started working with the ATO office in Shanghai and they’ve really helped us out.

“I conducted surveys in Guangzhou in southeastern China north of Hong Kong. Then, we did surveys in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong and also in Zhuhai, next to Macao. After that, I went north to Shanghai, where we worked with different stores and chains.”

Were you still cold-calling people? Or did you have enough connections after the first round?

“For the second round, we worked with some of the same chains.

“For the third round of surveys in Shanghai, it was back to cold calls. By then, it wasn’t hard because the Chinese really wanted to do it. With one of the Shanghai stores, the ATO office was especially helpful – the store is actually in the same building the office is in.”

Same set up in grocery stores with the samples and surveys?

“We tweaked it a bit but we still had the ‘U.S. rice’ displays, the surveyors in outfits. We changed up the gifts – hand towels, shopping bags, other things -- for completing the surveys.

“What we set up originally was working well so we just changed stuff up based on the supermarket restrictions. You just have to be willing to adjust.”

The process

So, APHIS was writing letters to the Chinese. Did you run into any resistance from them or was it more bureaucracy to run through?

“It was a lot of bureaucracy. They had to go through the motions and decide they’d do a pest-risk assessment. We’d already sent information over there through APHIS – Dr. Mo Way from Texas A&M wrote up the information for the assessment in the South. Others from UC-Davis wrote up the information for California.

“So, the Chinese had that information and it was a question of how long it would take them to move on it.

“But when I was last in Beijing, on June 14, the APHIS folks told me they’d finished the risk assessment. I said ‘Well, we’ve got a proposal ready to bring a Chinese delegation to the States. We want to show them how safe everything is, show them farms and mills.’

“I was told ‘they’re ready because they’ve said it’s time for a site visit.’

“APHIS sent a letter to the Chinese with the invitation. The next week, they accepted. I’ve since worked on the agenda with the APHIS national trade director and proposed some dates. They’re headed here in September.”

On the delegation’s make up…

“We’ll have an interpreter, an APHIS employee out of Beijing. She’s not only a scientist but she’ll be able to talk in specifics and on technical issues. You need the right kind of interpreter for this – technical terms can be tricky.

“There will be three Chinese government officials from AEQSIQ (The General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine), kind of like their version of APHIS. Two importers will also be on the trip -- they’ll meet up with us in Sacramento. With the interpreter, that’ll be six folks.

“So, it just fell into place. It seems to be on the fast track, now.”

On how the Chinese put together their delegation…

“The importers are people we asked to participate. The people with the JUSCO let us do the store surveys. They’re very interested to see the U.S. rice industry – everything from the farms to the mills and lawmakers.

“It’ll be good to have the importers along with the Chinese government representatives. Obviously, they want to import our rice and we want to provide it. The Chinese reps should see enthusiasm for this from both sides.

“We’ll show them everything, let them kick the tires, and answer all their questions. Hopefully, we’ll get a good response. I think we will.”

Potential

On what opening of Chinese rice markets could mean to U.S. farmers…

“Remember, there are 1.3 billion rice-eating Chinese. They could eat every grain of rice produced in the United States in 17 days. We could ship them all of our rice and it would last them just over two weeks.

“They want high-quality milled rice. We’re talking about packaging the rice here and shipping it over there.

“It’ll sell at a premium price if the quality is high enough. That’s what the surveys show and what people say to me when I’m over there.

“And 100 percent of the folks in the surveys say vitamin-enriched rice is important. (Such) rice isn’t required by other countries. But it is required in the in the United States and that’s turned out to be a selling point for us.”

On U.S. mills’ reactions…

“I’m contacting and visiting the mills.

“I sat down with a mill’s staff yesterday and told them everything that is going on, the questions the Chinese delegation may ask.

“It’s also important that the farmers we visit during the tour will be able to answer the delegation’s questions; everything from planting to the care given to the crops.

“They’ve specifically requested to visit rice farms. Where we go will be kind of fluid. That’s because we want to visit while there’s harvesting going on. Obviously, the weather will also have an impact.

“We’ve also been in contact with crop consultants, scientists at the National Rice Research Center. The delegation is interested in talking to all of” the rice industry facets.

On funding of U.S. trade programs…

“APHIS and the FAS have been very, very helpful in facilitating this. They couldn’t have been better.

“This has already been a success, although the ultimate goal is to get market access for U.S. rice in China.

“But the (Emerging Markets Program) funds available through the U.S. government have worked just as they should have. This is exactly what they should be used for. We could not have done it without them.

“Also, let me tell you: the farmers on the U.S. Rice Producers board were forward-thinking. They approved these efforts from inception. This is a feather in their cap. Our first grant application came in 2006. Everyone said ‘yeah, let’s see if there’s a market in China. If there is, let’s get it opened.’”