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An Orient odyssey

By Staff | Mar 26, 2010

Farm News staff writer Darcy Dougherty Maulsby stands at the top of the mill at the impressive Interflour Port, south of Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam. The facility, which began operations in May of 2003, projects significant growth in the next few years, due to the rapid expansion of the Vietnamese economy.

In his classic book “The Innocents Abroad,” Mark Twain noted that, “Travel is fatal to prejudice, bigotry and narrow-mindedness. Broad, wholesome, charitable views of men and things can not be acquired by vegetating in one little corner of the earth all one’s lifetime.”

I know I’ll never look at Iowa agriculture quite the same again, now that I’ve returned from a mid-March international agriculture trade mission to South Korea and Vietnam as part of the Iowa Corn Leadership Enhancement and Development program.

While I’ve written about the importance of exports for years for various ag publications, seeing the realities of exports for four of Iowa’s major agricultural products, including corn, soybeans, pork and beef, really opened my eyes.

As our I-LEAD group traveled through South Korea and Vietnam, it became clear that the two nations are a study in contrasts.

As an affluent, modernized society and one of the world’s most densely populated countries, South Korea has become an important destination for U.S. exports, including pork, beef and corn. It’s no wonder South Korea depends heavily on ag imports, since this mountainous nation, roughly the size of Indiana, is surrounded by water on three sides.

The average farm is 3.7 acres. Agriculture accounts for only 3.8 percent of the nation’s gross domestic product.

There’s no way those small farms can produce enough food to feed South Korea’s population of 50 million people, especially since 45 percent of the population lives in the Seoul metro area and a majority reside in high-rise apartments.

In fact, Seoul’s population density is 44,776 people per square mile. Compare this to Iowa, at 52.4 people per square mile, on average.

While Vietnam is also a heavily-populated country about the size of New Mexico, U.S. ag exports have a long ways to go before reaching the levels seen in South Korea.

With less than 20 percent arable land, Vietnam is much less developed than South Korea and continues to struggle with poor infrastructure, including inadequate roads and expensive, intermittent electricity.

Signs of progress are clear, however, throughout many of the areas we toured. Vietnam is an emerging economy with no signs of slowing down, and U.S. trade officials note that this is a very dynamic, encouraging market, especially for distiller’s dried grains.

The value of U.S. exports of agricultural products to Vietnam in 2009 totaled $1.05 billion, a 3 percent increase compared to 2008. U.S. feed grains have been a big part of this, noted Michael Riedel from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Foreign Agricultural Service, who added that Vietnam is the fastest growing market in Southeast Asia in terms of feed grains.

As I look back on my trip, there are three key points that are relevant to Iowa farmers, including:

  • Asia equals opportunity. South Korea is the United States’ fifth largest trading partner, while Southeast Asia is the world’s fourth largest feed market.

The opportunities for Iowa ag exports to both South Korea and Vietnam are impressive. When our I-LEAD group met with the Korea Swine Association, we learned that per capita pork consumption in Korea has been increasing since 2005.

The KSA believes pork consumption in Korea will continue to rise, which offers significant opportunities for U.S. pork. Positive trends are also visible in Vietnam.

Swine feed production in Vietnam has tripled in the past 10 years, for example, and it appears that Vietnam will become a leading importer of distiller’s dried grains in 2010 and beyond for livestock and aquaculture oeprations.

2. U.S. export success in Asia is not guaranteed. While Asian nations can be a major market for U.S. pork, beef, corn and more, our speakers stressed that trade agreements are vital to help avoid high import taxes on U.S. products. If these trade agreements are not supported in the United States, Iowa farmers will lose out on lucractive export opportunities. If Australia and other nations fill the gap, it will be very difficult for the United States to get a strong foothold in the Asian export market.

3. Many groups are working on behalf of Iowa farmers to drive export demand. From the Iowa Corn Promotion Board to the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) to the U.S. Grains Council, many talented, dedicated people are committed to finding new ways to build demand around the globe for Iowa’s ag products. When we met with representatives from the USMEF in South Korea, we learned that they are aggressively addressing the challenges facing U.S. beef in Korea. Following the BSE case in the United States in 2003, Korean consumers have been extremely leery of U.S. beef and believe it is not safe. In fact, more than a million participants (including moms, teenagers, and average citizens) participated in a candlelight demonstration in 2009 to protest U.S. beef. These consumers believe (falsely) that there are a large number of BSE contaminated cattle across the United States. To reassure Korean consumers about the safety and quality of U.S. Beef, the USMEF has launched an extenstive “Beef Story” campaign, complete with print ads, television commercials and more, to help drive demand for U.S. beef.

Looking back on everything I experienced during my trip to South Korea and Vietnam, I’m glad I had the opportunity through I-LEAD to travel beyond my little corner of Calhoun County to learn more about global agriculture and Iowa’s role in it.

I’ve developed a deeper appreciation not only for the views of Iowa’s international customers, but for the quality of life we enjoy right here in rural Iowa.

You can contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

SIDEBAR:

I-LEAD Trains Leaders for Iowa’s Future

The recent Iowa Corn Leadership Enhancement and Development (I-LEAD) international agriculture trade mission to South Korea and Vietnam marked a milestone for the class members who have been involved in the program since the fall of 2008. This is the fourth class to participate in I-LEAD, which was created by the Iowa Corn Promotion Board and the Iowa Corn Growers Association.

I-LEAD is a two-year program to provide Iowa’s talented men and women with the tools they need to succeed as leaders and spokespeople for agriculture. I-LEAD offers class members the opportunity to learn or improve practical communication and decision-making skills; develop a network of friendships and contacts in Iowa and beyond; and expand an understanding of Iowa’s agricultural and rural sector and its place within the Untied States and the world.

Participants in the current I-LEAD class include Lowell Appleton, Sanborn; Neil Bouray, Randolph; Cathy and Scott Brown, Columbus Junction; Will Cannon, Newton,; Chris Clark, Ida Grove; Klint Cork, Galva; Devin Dutilly, Ames; Chris Edgington, St. Ansgar; Kurt Hora, Washington; Darcy Maulsby, Lake City; Cody McKinley, Ankeny; Todd Mikkelsen, Cedar Falls; Derek Prostine, Clarksville; Jason Robinson, Baxter; Michael Schon, Spencer; Suzanne Shirbroun, Farmersburg; Dustin Vande Hoef, Des Moines; Roger Vander Veen, Hartley; and Chris Weydert, Algona.

I-LEAD welcomes applications from Iowans engaged in production agriculture or in related professions. For more information on the next I-LEAD class, contact Claire Masker at Iowa Corn at 515-225-9242, or cmasker@iowacorn.org. In addition, the current I-LEAD class’s blog is online at ileadclass4.wordpress.com.

Contact Darcy Dougherty Maulsby by e-mail at yettergirl@yahoo.com.

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