FARGO, N.D. (AP) — An emerging middle class in China has increased that country's interest in U.S. agriculture products, but it could take years before exports are realized, government and business leaders from North Dakota said Monday.
Lt. Gov. Drew Wrigley and Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, who led a recent overseas trade mission, said China's increased purchasing power has expanded its import tastes from raw foods to processed products like flour, which is produced at North Dakota's state-owned mill.
"It seems that every time I return to China we see more doors open. We see more opportunities," Goehring said during a news conference at North Dakota State University's downtown campus in Fargo.
The 10-day promotional tour in March included representatives from the pea, lentil, soybean, flax and flour industries, as well as from commercial companies and investment groups. It coincided with what Wrigley billed as the largest American trade mission to China, led by Michael Scuse, an acting undersecretary at the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
The North Dakota group met with Chinese officials and buyers at an event hosted by Scuse, who later announced that China plans to buy 8.6 million metric tons of American soybeans this year. Goehring said that while it's difficult to track where the product will come from, it's good news for soybean-producing states like North Dakota.
"They do recognize the value and the quality of foods," Goehring said of the Chinese. "They also have a great appreciation of food safety here in North Dakota."
U.S. exports to China last year exceeded $103 billion, including $14.7 billion in crops, according to the U.S. China Business Council. Officials say that while soybeans, flax, canola and sunflower oil continue to be top U.S. exports, China's new middle class is buying more imported organic produce and high-quality flour.
Consummating a deal is the tricky part. One representative of an American soybean group told Wrigley that it took 20 years of courting before the first bean was sold to China.
"We in our country can do business over the phone, on the Internet, for months and years before we ever meet each other," Goehring said. "But over there it's a little different. They want to look you in the eye. They want to establish some trust."
Todd Sinner, a member of the North Dakota contingent who represented the Northern Food Grade Soybean Association, said the state continues to lay the groundwork for new markets. He called it a work in progress.
"It's something you have to be patient about and not try to jump in with both feet, but to understand it so we can all win in this deal," Sinner said. "Our industry is growing, we are committed to it, and know that we can make a big splash in China."