BEIJING, China — Expanding Mississippi agriculture requires getting to know potential markets, and a group of Mississippi State University Extension agents is seeing one of the largest in the world firsthand.
A tour of Shanghai, Beijing and the Shandong Province is the last in a three-step international trade training program. In November, agents learned the basic principles of international trade. In April, more than 20 agents visited several Mississippi ports and cold storage facilities in the Delta and the Gulf Coast. The first two steps were open to all Extension agents, but only 10 were invited to travel to China based on a rigorous application process.
Susan Seal, assistant professor of international agricultural and Extension education at MSU, said the program has three primary objectives. The first is for agents to learn about the Mississippi port system. Next, they will analyze how international trade systems work with state agricultural exporters. Finally, they will understand the benefits of the resources within the port system as they relate to their clients.
“Mississippi producers selling strictly domestically are only reaching a segment of their potential customer base,” Seal said. “Agricultural exports have become a vital component of Mississippi’s economy, and recent trade agreements with other countries have created links between the U.S. and additional markets.”
International economies are expanding, and by growing crops to meet the increased demand outside the U.S., producers can offset the ups and downs of the domestic economy, Seal said.
In Shanghai, agents toured various grocery chains including Cityshop, RT-Mart and Greenland G-Super store. They also toured the Tongchuan Road Wet-market, the Yangshan Deep Water Port and Preferred Freezer Cold Chain facilities.
Many representatives of agricultural industry and research in Shanghai, including the city’s Agricultural Trade Office (ATO) branch, DuPont and Shanghai Agricultural Academy, emphasized the importance of “guanxi” — personal relationships — between markets in China and companies that export materials there.
Katherine Woody, deputy director for the ATO at the U.S. Consulate General in Shanghai, said customers in China tend to trust American products. Some ways the ATO-Shanghai connects American markets with those of other countries are trade shows and producer exchanges held in countries with ATOs.
“China is a great market for producers to enter because many clients here see a lot of credibility in what America brings,” Woody said. “Events such as trade shows allow producers to provide samples of their goods, showcase them to potential clients and find out where certain produce and goods are in high demand. For example, there is a big demand in China for niche produce, such as cranberries and ginseng, that are seen as delicacies.”
Several Mississippi agencies, including the Mississippi Development Authority, the Mississippi Department of Agriculture and Commerce, Mississippi World Trade Center and the Mississippi Export Service Center, connect producers with foreign markets.
Theresa Hand, Hinds County coordinator for the MSU Extension Service, said one step in encouraging state producers to include exporting in their business models is to remind them about available marketplace resources and how state agencies can help.
“If we don’t know what foreign markets are looking for and the resources Mississippi agencies already provide to reach those markets, we can’t expect producers to know, and I think many of them would buy in once they saw how much buying power exists outside the state and the U.S.,” she said. “Extension agents develop relationships one-on-one in their counties, and taking that same approach with representatives in overseas markets can create a connection to our producers that would provide them a point of entry into exporting and possibly add jobs to our existing industry.”
Agents spent five days in Tai’an, China, in the Shandong Province, where MSU has a memorandum of understanding (MOU) with Shandong Agricultural University (SDAU). In addition, two of the MSU faculty co-directors of the study tour, Guihong Bi and Shien Lu, are graduates of SDAU.
They toured the Dai Bei Market, which is a farmers’ market in Ta’ian, and visited horticulture crop production systems in nearby Shouguang to learn about production in protected environments. They visited the SDAU south campus to study the university’s research in row crop and animal production as well as plant protection and horticulture.
Lonette Crocker, Wayne County coordinator for the MSU Extension Service, said she was interested in the production efficiency of small farms in rural east China.
“I’ve been amazed at the small amount of wasted space,” she said. “In their gardens, there were crops planted in between crops. They built terraces to establish different crop layers. They make the best use of their land because they have to.”
Seal said one way MSU and SDAU could collaborate is on 4-H projects, which could possibly open educational opportunities for Mississippi 4-Hers. Jiwang Zhang, professor of agronomy at Shandong Agricultural University, said during a presentation that he hopes MSU and SDAU can learn more about models for 4-H programs in Mississippi. SDAU recently set a plan of action to establish its equivalent of 4-H.
“We need more young people in China to be exposed to agriculture,” he said. “Like in the U.S., many of our producers are older. Because production costs are relatively high for producers, a lot of young people don’t want to farm and seek manufacturing jobs in cities. We have to improve our technology and promote agricultural development to get more young people involved in the profession.”
In Beijing, agents toured the Chinese Academy of Agricultural Sciences plant factory and germplasm collection and met with faculty and students at China Agricultural University.
Seal said she is hopeful the agents will be able to connect their experience abroad with the previous trainings and tours and help Mississippi agribusinesses be more competitive in international markets.
“One of our agents’ roles is to help expand the state’s agricultural economy by helping the producers in their counties,” she said. “This in-service is showing them product export potential in one of the world’s largest trade markets. It is developing connections between them and the officials who can get Mississippi products there.”
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