Last week, I was honored to lead USDA’s first-ever agricultural trade mission to Vietnam, which is quickly becoming one of the United State’s largest markets for agricultural exports.

While there, I met with government and agricultural officials, witnessed trade relationships developing between U.S. and Vietnamese companies, and visited some of Vietnam’s most successful agricultural production and development sites.

While in Ho Chi Minh City, we visited the Vietnam Dairy Products Joint Stock Company, or Vinamilk, which is the largest dairy processing company in Vietnam and also a major importer of U.S. agricultural goods. Last year, they purchased $100 million worth of U.S. dairy products and more than $10 million of other U.S. agricultural goods, including soybeans and alfalfa hay.

I toured a Vinamilk production site and met the company’s managing director, Nguyen Quoc Khanh, who oversees the operations and business development for Vietnam’s 12 Vinamilk factories.

Mr. Khanh’s history with USDA well precedes our meeting last week. In 1998, he was selected to participate in the Cochran Fellowship Program, which is administered by USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service (FAS).  At the time, he was a production manager for a Vinamilk plant and came to the United States to learn about the latest dairy production and processing techniques at Ridgewater College in Wilmar, Minn.

Since 1984, the Cochran Fellowship Program has provided U.S.-based training courses to agricultural experts from middle-income countries, emerging markets and emerging democracies. The goal of the program is to provide high quality agricultural education to these individuals, including Mr. Khanh, which will help improve the agricultural systems in their home countries and enhance the United States’ trade relationships abroad. Since its inception, the Cochran program has trained more than 14,300 participants from 123 countries, including more than 270 fellows from Vietnam.

In addition to Mr. Khan, I had the opportunity to meet 22 Vietnamese Cochran fellows and heard about their accomplishments and the appreciation they have for the program. One Cochran aluma told me that participating in the program completely changed her life. She went from being an employee to an employer. She now owns her own company, employs 35 people and works as a trader and broker for 10 Vietnamese companies. She said it was the Cochran program that ultimately gave her the courage to succeed.

The success stories of these Cochran fellows made me proud to be a part of the Vietnam agricultural trade mission. As a result of this mission, we have strengthened the trade relationship between our countries and created new economic opportunities for all involved.

USDA recently forecast fiscal year 2011 and 2012 exports will reach a record $137 billion, $22 billion higher than the previous record set in 2008 and $28 billion above 2010. Strong agricultural exports contribute to the positive U.S. trade balance, create jobs and boost economic growth. The Vietnam trade mission supports the strategic priorities of President Obama’s National Export Initiative (NEI), which aims to double all U.S. exports by the end of 2014 and create millions of new American jobs.

To learn more about my recent trip to Vietnam, visit the Vietnam agricultural trade mission website.