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There are also challenges that can’t be solved with better seed or better equipment.
“Their yields are still about half of U.S. yields,” notes Chad Hart, a grain markets specialist at Iowa State University. “Their farmers have postage-stamp size farms where mechanization does not make sense. There’s still a lot of animal plowing, hand picking and air drying that pulls down productivity.”
Kevin Rempp, a Montezuma, Iowa, farmer on the Iowa corn checkoff board, saw the challenges facing China’s corn sector during a crop tour in 2011.
“They might have a 100-acre field divided into 100 different plots and planted by hand,” Rempp recalls. “In some areas they do have small planters, but if they see a gap, they go back and plant it by hand. All the corn we saw was picked by hand and laid out on the street to dry. A lot of their wheat is still cut by hand.”
China could improve efficiency, “but if it gets too modern, half the country would be out of a job,” he says. Increasing corn acres isn’t an option either unless the Chinese are prepared to reallocate land from other crops.
“China needs about 300 million acres to feed its population,” notes Liddell. “Right now they are very close or just under that number, so they have a very limited supply of arable land, and there are other resource restrictions such as water.
“So they decided which crop is most strategic to produce; corn has been the winner.”
Progress to ramp up domestic corn production will be slow, Sleight says: “It takes commercial innovation more than anything else. Their issues of land ownership and control tend to slow modernization. At the same time, China’s middle class, and therefore food demand, continues to grow very rapidly.
“The world needs China to expand its own production, but I believe they will continue to buy U.S. corn as prices moderate. We’re in a lull at present, but China will be a major player in corn and soybean purchasing now and in the future.”
Hart sees a similar future. “They are one of our more aggressive buyers when they see prices drop. They have been doing quite well at forward contracting. When they can catch a low point, they can move large blocks.”
At DuPont Pioneer, Niebur cites trends that China will continue to increase its use of corn and soybeans in livestock feed, food and industrial applications, “which will require active and significant export and import activity in the future.”