Missouri strengthens soybean connection to China

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Ron Gibson, 71, surveys one of his fields in Norborne, Mo., on April 15, 2012. Gibson represented Missouri soybean growers on a trade mission to China in October 2011. (Eva Dou for Harvest Public Media)
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Eva Dou is a journalism student at the University of Missouri, Columbia.

Missouri soybeans are exported all over the world and markets are growing. Local Missouri farmers, like Ron Gibson, have to make connections to global partners.

Gibson has spent his entire life growing soybeans in Norborne, Mo., about 60 miles east of Kansas City. He has farmed in Norborne, the self-proclaimed “World Capital of Soybeans,” for a long, long time.

“I quit college and came back to farm and have been farming ever since,” Gibson said. “Just been adding acres as I go.”

At age 70, Gibson finally got to see where most of his crop ends up for the first time. That is – on the other side of that world, in China.

“We spent a couple days in Beijing and then went to the Hebei province, the sister state of Missouri, and they treated us very, very nice there,” Gibson said.

Gibson was part of a Missouri trade mission to China last fall. He represented soybean farmers. It was an important rolebecause soybeans are Missouri’s main crop and China is an important customer.

“China’s the biggest,” Gibson said. “It has made a world of difference. The price wouldn’t be near what it is if they weren’t using all that they’re using.”

Historically speaking, China buying so much soy from the U.S is actually an interesting reversal. Soybeans are native to China and have been cultivated there for thousands of years. They weren’t introduced to the West until much later, and even then, Gibson said, soybeans didn’t take off.

“It started out as a legume, as a manure crop,” Gibson said. “You planted it and plowed it under – that was years ago. But it turned out it was such a good livestock feed.”

With the discovery of new uses for soybeans – like biodiesel – places like Norborne, Mo., have been turning out ever more soy. And Missouri farmers are looking to China to buy.

“You’ve got to find new demands because the yields are increasing and you don’t want a glut on the market,” Gibson said.

In almost every sector, Missouri businesses are looking to plug themselves in to the enormous Asian market to the East. Tim Nowak, executive director of the World Trade Center Saint Louis, said 80 to 85 percent of Missouri’s exporters are small- to medium-sized companies.

“It’s not just about multinational companies,” Nowak said.

Missouri exports to China hit new highs last year and are projected to keep growing.  During the trade mission Gibson took part in, Gov. Jay Nixon signed a $4.4 billion trade deal with China.

But not everyone’s happy with what’s being sold, according to Robert Scott, the director of trade research at the Washington D.C.-based Economic Policy Institute. Scott points out that Missouri’s top exports continue to be commodities, such as crops and metals, while its main imports are finished products. He says this trade imbalance will hurt the state in the long run.

“We’re pouring energy on the land and mining the soil for corn with a lot of heavy equipment,” Scott said. “It doesn’t create very many jobs. We’re using those products to buy labor-intensive manufactured goods from China.”

Gibson, though, sees more opportunity than downside. He says he came back from China with a new outlook.

“I expected everything to be backwards, but the big cities are just like ours,” Gibson said. “They’re huge.”

Huge cities, filled with potential customers.