Could the Chinese government soon open ports to U.S. milled rice imports? In mid-August, indications are that will happen and, considering the size of China’s prospering, rice-eating class, the U.S. rice industry stands to gain a massive market.

An indicator of which way the Chinese government is leaning: in September, it will send delegation to the United States for a series of tours. The delegation will visit California and Mid-South rice farms, mills, and research facilities before traveling to Washington, D.C., to meet with U.S. trade officials and legislators.

The opening of the Chinese rice market has not been an exercise for the impatient. Since 2005, Greg Yielding, head of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, has spearheaded U.S. Rice Producers Association efforts to find a way through Chinese bureaucracy and myriad trade laws, along with language and cultural barriers.

In 2008, Yielding was fresh off a trip to China where he’d set up grocery store surveys and rice-tasting booths. Having garnered positive results from both, Yielding was enthusiastic. “China doesn't have an emerging middle class — it's already viable. Money is all over. Everything we're wearing and using is made there. They're taking our money and improving their living conditions.”

For more, see Producers group works to open Chinese market to U.S. rice.

Now, three years later and having recently finalized the Chinese delegation's touring schedule, Yielding has only amped up expectations for Chinese acceptance of U.S. rice. "If you're a rice farmer or miller, how can you not be excited by the prospect of selling to the Chinese? This is a huge opportunity for all of us, including the Chinese who'll be able to buy a U.S. product that's second to none.

"This really is one of the most important things, in terms of agricultural exports, in years. This could be a huge market opening for us. And it could help our trade deficit with China.”

Yielding – who lauds USDA Agriculture Trade Office (ATO) employees, the Foreign Agriculture Service, and the Animal Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) in helping bring the market-opening process forward – recently spoke with Delta Farm Press about the long process to open markets, what the Chinese want from U.S. rice and what to expect in coming months. Among his comments:

On what’s happened between 2008 and now…

“Since (the last DFPress story in September 2008), we continued to do U.S. rice promotions and surveys.

“We traveled to Shanghai and surveyed folks on not only long-grain but also medium-grain – Neptune and Jupiter. The surveys had even better results: 80-plus percent of folks liked the medium-grain. The long-grain results stayed around the high 70s.

“So, we were still seeing the same positive survey results. The Chinese supermarkets and importers kept saying they want U.S. rice on the shelves. We’d sit down with them and explain we need market access from their government.

“At the same time, we were working with APHIS employees, who were sending letters to the Chinese asking for market access and explaining that a pest-risk assessment wouldn’t be necessary for milled U.S. rice.

“We also were working with grants provided by the Emerging Markets Program for the USDA and Foreign Agriculture Service. There are now five ATO offices in China. I started working with the ATO office in Shanghai and they’ve really helped us out.

“I conducted surveys in Guangzhou in southeastern China north of Hong Kong. Then, we did surveys in Shenzhen, across the border from Hong Kong and also in Zhuhai, next to Macao. After that, I went north to Shanghai, where we worked with different stores and chains.”

Were you still cold-calling people? Or did you have enough connections after the first round?

“For the second round, we worked with some of the same chains.

“For the third round of surveys in Shanghai, it was back to cold calls. By then, it wasn’t hard because the Chinese really wanted to do it. With one of the Shanghai stores, the ATO office was especially helpful – the store is actually in the same building the office is in.”

Same set up in grocery stores with the samples and surveys?

“We tweaked it a bit but we still had the ‘U.S. rice’ displays, the surveyors in outfits. We changed up the gifts – hand towels, shopping bags, other things -- for completing the surveys.

“What we set up originally was working well so we just changed stuff up based on the supermarket restrictions. You just have to be willing to adjust.”