A visit to our largest customer was an amazing opportunity to comprehend and Think Different about this capitalist/socialist country that currently buys $26 billion of U.S. agricultural exports. In fact China bought 42% of its 2012 soybeans from U.S. farmers.

I was fortunate to attend a China trade mission for 10 days in late March, thanks to earning a spot with 27 Minnesota farmers and soybean officials as part of the Minnesota Soybean Research & Promotion Council’s (MSR&PC) International Marketing “See For Yourself” project. This popular program, now in its eighth year, gives Minnesota farmers a personal view of how their checkoff dollars work to develop international markets.

During our exhausting long days into nights of travel by bus, plane and boat, our group traversed eastern China from north (Beijing) to south (Hong Kong) where we gained market insight while visiting a wide variety of soybean customers – dairy, swine and poultry operations, plus soy food and feed plants, crushing facilities, food markets, aquaculture (fish) farms and shipping ports.

We heard firsthand of competitive challenges from South America (lower-priced, higher-protein soybeans), yet we also received compliments that support U.S. soybeans (higher quality, more consistent delivery). We even heard some support for northern U.S. beans that contain better amino acid profiles, as well as potential acceptance of U.S. food-grade, non-GMO soybeans.

Productive business dialogue characterized each meeting. But what took me by surprise was the strong rapport gained during moments of genuine laughter (and numerous toasts during meals) by both sides. They truly enjoyed meeting a big group of Minnesota soybean farmers to learn about their farms, about current planting intensions, to view photos, and even accept invitations to come for a visit. The goodwill shared during personal visits was priceless.

Yes, China’s government controls the trade of grains and other key commodities through state-owned trading companies, import/export quotas and licenses, export taxes, subsidies and more. Plus, sudden and dramatic policy shifts can make the country a relatively volatile player. And our travels also revealed the major air and water pollution issue, as well as the challenging movement among 1.3 billion people from rural to urban centers.

While challenges remain in our relationship with China, our two countries have built a collaborative foundation to solve issues. And the soybean industry has been a real leader in this effort. As we look ahead 20-30 years at the global agricultural environment, this relationship is so important. We must work together, to think different, to solve issues and challenges of food security, food safety and sustainability.

My China stories and photos from the trip are online at http://bit.ly/10FkQ8C.

I sincerely thank you for reading and for being willing to Think Different.