Late September was busy for a Chinese delegation touring the various segments of the U.S. rice industry. With the ripening potential of Chinese markets opening to U.S. rice, the three-man team visited California mills and farms before arriving in the Mid-South.
One of the Mid-South tour stops was at Smith Farms outside north-central Arkansas’ Alicia just south of Walnut Ridge. Under drizzling rain, they found an immaculate operation and an astute operator.
“I’m involved with the Windmill Rice Company – the newest food-grade mill in America,” said David Smith just after the delegation’s departure. “I’m also a lifetime rice farmer. That puts me on both sides of the fence.
“When the U.S. Rice Producers Association facilitated the Chinese coming to the States, they came to the mill and asked if we’d be part of the tour. I said ‘Sure. Anyone can tour that might potentially be a customer.’ That turned into a farm visit, as well.”
The tour has allowed the delegation to see “the full gamut of what we can offer. We do custom growing to milling. If someone wants Smith Farms to grow 10,000 acres of X variety, I can go to my neighbors and get that done while keeping it segregated.”
For a video interview with Smith, see here.
Asked about questions from his Chinese visitors Smith said they centered on “a lack of bugs (in the rice). They’re looking for clean, high-quality food; food that’s been monitored from seed to the shelf and everywhere in between.
“China grows a lot of rice, 125 million acres. (The United States) grows less than three million. But from what I understand, a lot of (Chinese) rice isn’t very high-quality. It’s still threshed on concrete. They’re looking for a better grade.
“The Chinese are rice-eaters … and they’re looking for a higher grade of rice. And it’s well known that the highest grade of rice in the world comes from America.”
If the Chinese import U.S. rice, said Smith, “the milling industry would have more customers. In turn, that would take more of the supply of rice away from the United states, which would run the price up for farmers. It would be good for the entire rice industry.”
Greg Yielding, who heads the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, acted as tour leader for the delegation. Asked about the team make-up, Yielding said the leader is a “deputy director for CIQ (China Inspection Quarantine). That’s the Chinese equivalent of APHIS. Another member is a researcher/pathologist with AQSIQ – again, sort of like APHIS. The third team member is a food safety expert and he has a lot of questions concerning that.”
For a video interview with Yielding, see here.
How close is deal?
The repeated questions from the delegation regarding pest and cleanliness issues in the U.S. rice supply weren’t unexpected, said Yielding. The current Chinese policy towards U.S. rice “is we have access … but we don’t. That’s because we don’t have any phytosanitary protocols. That’s what (the Chinese team) is doing. They’re doing a pest risk assessment on U.S. milled rice.
“They say this is the last step, a site visit. They’re in the United States looking at mills and farms and everything in the system between growing, milling and packaging. They want to see what kinds of certificates they might require of exporters before we can shop them rice.”
Such site visits are something “every country does,” said Yielding. The United States “does it to other countries. We’ll say ‘yeah, you can ship this from another into the United States. But we want make sure you do A, B, C and D and there needs to be proof you did it and there be a government agency backing it up.’”
At farms and mills the delegation wanted information on what “record-keeping is available as to what chemicals are used and ways to find out if there are any pests. How often do you check (for pests)? How often do you check bins? How often do the mills check? Where are the critical points of control in mills to (locate any) problems. And, if you do (find a problem) what is done about it?”
The delegation has been “told time and time again that milled rice is safe, that there have never been bugs or pests in milled rice. There’s a zero tolerance policy. … If there’s any dead or alive (pests the rice) won’t go, it won’t be exported, it won’t be sent to the store. Those are the policies we have in the United States.”
How close to exporting U.S. rice to China?
“This is one of the last steps,” said Yielding. “We’ll end this visit in D.C. They’ll meet with APHIS and USDA officials and probably go over what they’ve learned on the visit.
“Then, they’ll probably go back to China, digest it, write it up and meet with APHIS again. Hopefully, it won’t be long before the protocols are in place. Once we do that trade can begin.”
Smith certainly hopes that’s the case. It would be nice if, soon, “a couple of large (Chinese) buyers come over and … make a deal.”