Beijing, China – Part 5 – Corn Harvest

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Beijing, China with USSEC (United States Soybean Export Council).  

We were mostly in Beijing, but one day we did travel outside the city to visit the Great Wall.  Along our drive to the Great Wall, we did see some corn that had been harvested along the side of the road.  The kernels were still on the cobs, and the entire ear was drying down.  It was covered in plastic that day as it had been raining lightly throughout the day.

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Recently harvested corn, just outside Beijing, China. Notice the corn kernels are still on the cobs.

 

On the return flight home, I sat next to a man who worked for a large agribusiness company.  He told me that the farmers in China will harvest corn at the half milk line stage which is much earlier than when the U.S. farmer would harvest.  He said that the average corn yield in China is 80 bushels per acre (similar to where the U.S. was in the early 1980’s).

You’ll notice in the picture that the corn kernels have not been removed from the cobs.  He said that they will allow the corn to dry down on the cobs then some sort of machine will come through and remove the kernels from the ears.  The kernels will eventually be picked up and the cobs will be burned as fuel for the family’s fire during the cold months.

I would love to see a Chinese farm and harvest first hand!

Comparison to U.S. Farm

As a comparison, if the average farm in China is 2.5 acres (like 2 ½ football fields), and corn yields 80 bushels per acres, their total production would be 200 bushels of corn.  Today the U.S. price of corn is $3.50, so they would yield $700 total for their crop, and entire livelihood for the year!

The average U.S. farm is 446 acres.  This size of a farm requires at least one spouse (likely both) to work off the farm to support family living expenses and provide benefits, such as health insurance.

While we were traveling, we were told a few different times that the term farmer is equal to peasant in China.  It’s fascinating to look at the contrast between U.S. and China’s farming styles.  It makes me very thankful for the technology and innovations that we have available to us on our farm.  It also reminds me of the plight that other farmers have who don’t have access as we do.

 

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Beijing, China – Part 4 – China and U.S. Grain

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Beijing, China with USSEC (United States Soybean Export Council).    

As you may know, professionally, I have worked with farmers for many years on helping them to market (sell) their grain.  It’s next to impossible to think about the grain markets and not think about the impact that China has.

China and the U.S. are very important to one another in agriculture.

China’s Population

The reason that China influences the U.S. markets so much is because they have such a large population to feed.  China’s population is nearly 20% of the world population.  It really is something to think about those numbers from a remote town in Kansas, and quite another thing to see it first hand in Beijing, China.

With this mass quantity of people, food security is one of the top priorities.  From a very simplistic view, keeping people fed helps tremendously in keeping peace.  This was my basic understanding prior to my trip, but as with most things, it’s much more complex than this basic assumption.

Movement of people from rural to urban areas

Because the rural areas are very poor and because it’s difficult to provide services to remove areas, the Chinese government has a goal to encourage people to move from the rural areas of China into the cities.  The plan is to move 25% of the rural population to the urban areas over the next several years.  Think about this – this is like moving the entire population currently located on East Coast to the Midwest!

The thought process is that if the people are in urban rather than remote areas than better services can be offered such as nutrition and education.  Along with moving into the urban areas is improved incomes.  This is not unlike the migration from farms to the cities that the US witnessed during the 1920’s to the 1950’s.  The first thing that comes along with higher incomes is higher quality nutrition, almost always first in the form of protein.  This is why there has been a dramatic increase in the consumption of pork and chicken in China over the past decade.  Pork and chicken are both large consumers of soymeal in their feed (food) ration.

Impact on U.S. Farmers

China is a very important buyer of U.S. grains, and particularly U.S. soy.  China is the fourth largest producer of soybeans in the world.  Yet, the Chinese consume so much soy that twenty-five to thirty percent of the entire U.S. soybean crop is exported to China.

When they encounter dry growing conditions, such as they did the past few years, they can purchase mass quantities of other grains from the U.S. and other countries, as well.

China’s largest agriculture export to the U.S. is aquaculture.

Chinese Farms

Farms in China are about 2.5 acres each (or 2 ½ football fields).  The majority of the farm work is manual with very few farms having mechanization.  Because of steep terrain, some of the farmland would be quite difficult to farm by machine.

There are no personal property rights in China.  The government owns the land and the tenant farmers have long-term leases of 30 years.  As I understand it, the one who has the land leased is allowed to sublet the land to another.

Not Enough Farm Land

There is not enough farm land in China to produce all the food needed to feed their people.  They look at wheat and rice as being staple foods to feed the people, so the government allocates enough acres to be mostly self sufficient in wheat and rice production.  Then there are enough acres left to be mostly self sufficient in either corn or soybeans.  Looking at the tonnage of production per acre of each of these crops, it makes more sense for them to try to be self sufficient in corn.  They look at it as importing land and water and saving on freight by importing soybeans.  Another advantage to importing soybeans is that there are reliable suppliers in both North and South America and differing growing seasons.

Soy foods are commonly eaten in China.  My understanding is that all the soy foods consumed are grown in China and is non-GMO.  However, with the population and the increase in future incomes, eventually, they may need to import soybeans for food as well as feed.

GMO Concerns

Although the internet is different than it is in the U.S. with many popular U.S. websites blocked, the Chinese people certainly have access to their own sites on the internet.  Similar to the U.S., they also have celebrities and bloggers who help mold the opinions of the people.  With that, people in China have heard many of the same concerns around GMO (genetically modified organisms) production that we see in the U.S.

The people are very health conscious.  They want to know what the long-term impacts of eating GMO foods are.  They have concerns about whether or not GMOs cause cancer, infertility issues, or allergies.

Why I was in China

I was one of four U.S. farm moms who went to China.  We met primarily with younger women to discuss how and why we raise GMO crops on our farms.  We talked about what U.S. farms are like.  We also shared about why we feel that GMO crops are safe to consume and how GMOs have helped our farms and by extension have helped the environment.  We also talked about some of the things that we think will be important in the future with GMOs.  Below are a few good websites on the safety of GMOs.

In a future blog post, I will address some of the common concerns about GMOs – stay tuned!

Resources for GMOs

GMO Answers http://gmoanswers.com/

CommonGround http://findourcommonground.com/food-facts/gmo-foods/

Best Food Facts http://www.bestfoodfacts.org/

Beijing, China – Part 3 – The Food

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Beijing, China with USSEC (United States Soybean Export Council). I learned so much which I’d like to share with you.

The food was wonderful!  Admittedly, we were probably sheltered from some of the most customary foods.  For example, they consider China to be complementary in the meat cuts, meaning that they prefer the parts that we don’t.  I saw many pig and chicken feet at markets (although I did not try them).

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Bulk pig’s feet available at the grocery store.

I did learn to eat with chopsticks on the fly.  I’ve always eaten with a fork, but while there – one must learn!  I was definitely a slow eater though.  At all the restaurants that we ate at had round tables with a lazy Susan in the middle.  The dishes were served family style, and everyone served themselves a little bit of each.

My favorite dish was a mandarin fish with sweet and sour, but it wasn’t anything like the sweet and sour I’ve eaten in America.  It was delish!  The food differences that I noticed were a lot more vegetables, not much grain (honestly we didn’t even eat much rice), and we only had dessert twice.  The famous Peking duck dish is just something one has to try while in China.  It was very good!

We had the opportunity to visit a large store, Carrefour, and walk through the grocery area.  It was fascinating, and struck me to see how much fresh produce there was.  I would say the produce area was about five times larger than the local Kroger store that I frequent.  The reason for that much bigger produce area is likely because of the mass quantity of people shopping at this store (Beijing is 20 million people) plus they seem to eat more vegetables than we tend to in the U.S.

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Some of the produce was very different.

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Fresh fish. It was different for me to see it available in bulk rather than packaged.

Secondly, I noticed that a lot of food was in bulk and not packaged.  For example, the rice you just grabbed a scoop and bagged however much rice you wanted.  The meat was also in bulk and not individually wrapped.  I wonder about some food safety issues with having food in bulk that people are helping themselves to, but I suppose if that’s what your grocery was like, you’d get used to it.

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Bulk Rice

Lastly, the staple products were a little different than we have.  Similar to how we have a cereal aisle, and they had an aisle for oil.  Oil is considered a staple as they cook with it on a daily basis.

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Look at the oil aisle! So many choices.

 

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Soybeans can be purchased in the grocery store – either bulk or packaged in bags.

 

When soybeans are crushed, the old is extracted to make vegetable oil and the soymeal that is left is fed to livestock in a feed ration.  The Chinese population regularly eat soy in their diets.  Although the soy that they eat mostly is grown in China.

Since I was traveling on behalf of U.S. soy, we did order tofu at most meals.  We eat edamame regularly in our house, but I am looking forward to learning how to incorporate other forms of soy into our diets as I learn to cook with them.

From our own farm raised soybeans, I have picked green soybeans around Labor Day and steamed them like edamame and have roasted the mature soybeans.  I’m looking forward to playing around in my kitchen to learn how to incorporate tofu and tempeh into my cooking.

Beijing, China – Part 2 – Cultural Immersion

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Beijing, China with USSEC (United States Soybean Export Council). I learned so much which I’d like to share with you.

While in Beijing, China, we were very fortunate to see a few of the famous sights. Seeing these sights and gaining an understanding of their importance was very helpful to understanding the people and culture.

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Myself and the three other farm moms that I traveled with at the Great Wall.

Really, how can you go to China and not see the Great Wall?  It is no wonder it is one of the great wonders of the world.  It’s absolutely amazing to think how this structure was built during the Ming Dynasty.  The terrain where we were was rough.  We took a gondola to the top.  It was overcast and misty the day that we were there but what a sight it is!  If you’ve seen opening scene in the Disney movie, Mulan, that’s kind of what it’s like.  Every couple hundred yards there is a shelter with a lookout tower with a walkway continuously connecting the entire wall.  The walls for the shelters were at least one foot wide.  The section that we visited was built in the 1400’s.

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At Tiananmen Square – this was a beautiful display being constructed for National Holiday.

Our second big sight to see was Tiananmen Square and the Forbidden City palaces.  We were there the week before National Day so there was a lot of preparation going on in Tiananmen Square.  National Day is October 1-7, and people gather in Tiananmen Square to celebrate and see government officials during the celebration.  The Forbidden Palace was built during the Ming Dynasty.  It is called the Forbidden City because no one could enter or leave without the emperor’s permission.  There are several gates.  The structures were very elaborate and housed the emperor’s administrative offices and as you go deeper into the gates. Near the back of the palace you approach the family quarters including the concubine quarters and family gardens.

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The four farm moms and our translator in front of entrance to Forbidden Palace.

We also had the chance to do some shopping at the Silk Market and the Pearl Market.  Shopping is different from the U.S. as you barter.  Of course, you also have to consider the exchange rate of the currency to as well.

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This was the equivalent of $200 US.

Contrary to U.S. shops, when the markets are closing, they don’t have a lot of incentive to close up shop.  They seem to look at it as the opportunity to lock in a few more sales.  The salespeople seemed to get a little more aggressive and started lower on prices.  I like to negotiate so I thought shopping there was a lot of fun.  However, I had to remember that I had jet lag and since they barter all the time, they are much better at it than I ever will be!  Just got to be willing to walk away.  Jade, pearls, and silk are the more popular items to buy.  I came home with gifts of fans, silk cuts which is a traditional art, a tea set, and silk scarf.  A couple of the ladies that I traveled with had blazers custom made for them, perhaps if I ever go back, I’ll do that too.

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The silk market. The fabric was beautiful!

We were so fortunate to have a wonderful lady, Jane, who traveled with us.  She was our translator, but also ended up being a tour guide and really helped us to have a better understanding of the people.  Jane was raised in Shanghei, but has lived in the U.S. for several years.  Jane was wonderful!

Jane bought this instrument for her 6 year old son.  You can watch this YouTube video to listen to what it sounds like.  It’s beautiful!

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Having the opportunity to be among the people was very helpful in understanding some of the issues that the people face.  It’s a fascinating ancient culture.

Beijing, China – The People – Part 1

I recently had the opportunity to travel to Beijing, China with USSEC (United States Soybean Export Council). I learned so much which I’d like to share with you.

Although I am very new to any sort of world travel, I think people always tell the story no matter where one is at.  People are people, and each individual makes the difference.  I found the people of China to be very friendly.  Customs and tradition are very important in their culture.  Exchanging business cards was almost ceremonial.

The population is large.  The Chinese people make up about 20% of the world’s population.  Beijing is nearly 20 million people which is like New York City’s population times two plus Los Angeles.  For math lovers Beijing = 2NYC + LA.

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Look at all the cars!

When we arrived at the airport in Beijing, one of the first things we did was get on the shuttle.  The shuttle was packed. By packed, I mean it was well beyond the capacity for American standards.  The reality is that there are so many people that personal space isn’t something that people worry about much because you don’t have the luxury of room.  For example, when we were waiting to get into Tiananmen Square, people just pushed in on each other in hopes to get to the front.  It was a little nerve wrecking for us as we are used to Disney style lines rather than masses pushing up against one another.  Simply a cultural difference.

Another difference is that tipping is not customary.  This was strange to me because I really wanted to tip.  Especially when five of us got a foot massage.

Lessons Learned While Getting a Foot Massage

The foot massage lasted about an hour.  While our feet were soaking, they massaged our backs.  I had been carrying a cross body purse and my shoulder was particularly sore.  This massage was a very deep tissue massage, and my muscles were very extremely tender the next day.  After our backs, they proceeded to massage our feet and lower legs.

The masseuses did not speak English, but we had a translator with us who would tell us what they said.  At one particularly painful point on my foot, my masseuse told me that I wasn’t sleeping well.  Yes, she was right, jet lag did not agree with me as I probably averaged only 3-4 hours of sleep per night!  She also told me that my back was bothering me.  It was amazing what she could tell from my feet!

The foot massage, although a little painful, was a neat experience.  However, what really struck me was when they told our translator that most of them were from the rural areas and most had children that were being raised by their parents as they work in the city, send money home, and rarely have a day off to go home.  As a mother, it was heartbreaking to think of them not seeing their children regularly.

Their stories reminded me of the news reports that I’ve seen on the people who make iPhones.  I suppose in many cultures there is the generation that leaves the family to gain better employment to move the family into a higher income level.  Although this may be necessary, it’s heartbreaking to imagine what that does to each of the people in that family.  I easily would have tipped her 100% for the massage if I would have been sure it would have helped her family, but it was uncertain that she would get and be able to keep the money.

Movement of people from rural to urban to areas 

There is a goal to move more of the rural population from the rural areas into urban regions over the next several years.  The rural areas are very poor and it’s difficult to provide services such as medical and education.  People consume about half as much food in the rural areas compared to the urban population.  The goal is to get people moved into the urban areas where there are better jobs and services.  With the better jobs then they can afford and have access to more food.  Whenever people improve their incomes, they improve their diets including more protein.  If you think about this goal in terms of the U.S. population, it would be like moving the entire East Coast population to the Midwest!

 Importance of education

Along with the goal to move a portion of the rural population is to provide better education to the people.  Education is very important in China.  We were told that Kindergarten in China is from age 3 to age 5 years old.  I understood that beyond primary education, the family pays for their child’s education.  It’s quite competitive to get into the best upper level schools, and they are very expensive.

 One child rule

The most common question people have asked me about China is if the one child rule still is in force.  As a means to control the growth of the population, in the 1970s the Chinese government implemented a rule that each family was allowed to have just one child.  I understood that there might be some differences among the requirements depending upon the providence that the family lives in.  The government has relaxed the one child rule, if each parent is from a one child family, then they are allowed to have two children.  In some regions, if at least one parent is from a one child family, they may be able to have two children.  However, we were told that because education is so important, and the best education is so expensive that many families continue to choose to have only one child.

I am so glad that I had the opportunity to travel to China, and be immersed for a few days in their culture.  It was a wonderful experience to meet the people, hear some of their stories, and clear up some of the misconceptions that I had about their culture.  It never ceases to amaze me that when I’ve had the opportunity to talk with another how much understanding we can gain from one another.

The People of Ecuador and First World Problems – Part 5

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the USB (United Soybean Board) 2014 See for Yourself Program.  The See for Yourself Program allowed participants to see how U.S. soy is used throughout the world.  On our tour we had the opportunity to visit Panama and Ecuador. 

One thing that was solidified in my mind on this trip was how complex the world food system truly is.  The food system is complex because there are more than 7 billion people on this planet that need to eat.  How do we get enough food to all the people who need to eat?  Who are the most efficient at producing and transporting food to people?

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Some of the few farm animals that we saw – free range pig and chickens.

The complexity was driven home to me most in seeing the chicken farm that we visited.  What struck me is how the people were paid daily.  Therefore, every day they need to shop for their food.  Chicken is the highest per capita meat eaten.  The people go to the market daily, if their choice that day is for chicken. They buy a live chicken, take it home to butcher it themselves, and prepare it for their family.

By contrast, in my world, I make a meal plan each week, and buy the groceries that I need to supplement what is already in my pantry and freezer.  If one of my meals has chicken in it, likely, I just purchase the parts I want (honestly, I can’t remember the last time I bought an entire chicken!).  Then as the week goes on, I may or may not make that recipe.  Perhaps I’m too busy and I choose to order pizza instead on the evening I was going to make that recipe.  Oh, first world problems!

My family’s farm is primarily produces corn and soybeans.  These are not grains that we readily consume as humans.  How our farm fits into the food chain is that most of our soybeans go to a soy crusher where the oil is extracted from the soybean to produce vegetable oil and the meal that is left is fed to livestock as a high energy and protein source.  In our area, most of the soymeal goes to feed either poultry or pigs.  Our corn either goes into feed for cattle, pigs, or poultry.  {See my blog from September 21, 2012, Where Does All That Grain Go? for details of where the grain from our farm goes once it’s harvested.}

In Ecuador, we were able to meet with several customers who buy U.S. soy which is mostly to be fed in a ration (AKA recipe) to chickens, pigs, or shrimp.  Chickens and pigs provide an important protein source for the people.  I don’t know how many of the people regularly eat shrimp, but I know from the farms we toured that each provided valuable jobs to the people.

I was interested to understand the economic benefit of the businesses we were visiting.  Of the businesses we visited, they employed about 6,500 people.  Obviously, the ports handle more than just agriculture products, but it was interesting to me to see how important these jobs are to the people and how agriculture plays a major role in all of these jobs.

I hope that you have enjoyed reading about my travels to Panama and Ecuador as much as I’ve enjoyed sharing my observations.  I feel like this was a once in a lifetime opportunity for me to see in depth how U.S. agriculture impacts the world.  I’m very appreciative to the United Soybean Board for allowing me the opportunity to see for myself how U.S. soy is used in other countries.

 

 

Ecuador – Chickens and Pigs, oh my! – Part 4

I recently had the opportunity to participate in the USB (United Soybean Board) 2014 See for Yourself Program.  The See for Yourself Program allowed participants to see how U.S. soy is used throughout the world.  On our tour we had the opportunity to visit Panama and Ecuador.

The last couple days in Ecuador were spent in the mountainous region of Quito.  In this part of the country, we learned more about the importance of chicken and pork to the people’s diets.

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Quito is in the mountainous area of Ecuador. This picture was taken from the airplane. Landing was interesting, it felt more like the plane was fishtailing rather than turbulence. I wasn’t the only one on the plane that was a little nervous.

Chicken production in Ecuador is very important, as chicken is the most consumed meat per person.  We had the opportunity to visit a broiler production farm and a meat processing facility that integrated to raise chickens as well.

An interesting contrast to U.S. employees is that many Ecuadorian workers are paid daily rather than weekly or monthly (I think this is mostly true for lower wage employees).  Receiving their wages daily, most people buy their food on a daily basis.  It’s not unusual for them to purchase a live chicken to take home to cook for the evening meal.

The broiler production farm that we visited, raise 400,000 chickens per week.  Of these, over one-third of the chickens were sold retail to individuals.  I wish I would have gotten a picture of it, but we met several trucks that looked similar to older 10 wheel trucks that had high side boards.  Inside the bed of the truck were crates which were stacked one upon the other transporting live chickens to go to the market for families to buy.

This farm said that they use about 30% of soymeal in their feed rations for their chickens, and they have a preference for U.S. soymeal because of the amino acid levels.  Listen to this interview with Brownfield Ag here.

Everywhere we drove we saw small store fronts along the roadside.  All of them had bananas hanging along with other food.  We stopped at one storefront and were able to walk around.  The store was about the same size as a large master bathroom – very small!

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Typical store front that one sees frequently in Ecuador. Every one seemed to have bananas hanging in front. Notice the bag of pig feed in the front door. 1/3 to half of the pigs are raised in the backyard.

Because many people buy their food daily from these small storefronts, it’s difficult to provide additional food choices.  At the facility that we visited that does meat processing they talked about that at the few larger grocery stores in the cities that they actually provide refrigeration for their products.

The second most consumed meat in Ecuador is pork.  As recently as 2007, 50% of the pork was raised in backyard production.  As someone who was raised on a hog farm, that seems very challenging!

Although we did not see any areas that were high production areas for corn, we were told that Ecuador’s goal is to be self sufficient in corn production.  The only corn that we saw were small patches planted near houses in an area the size of a large backyard.  That corn was surely hand planted and the plants appears to be a few feet apart, much different than our fields where corn plants are about 6 inches apart!

It was very interesting to see how the Ecuadorians purchase food compared to the U.S.  I appreciate my refrigerator and opportunity to grocery shop once per week even more after seeing how they must purchase food.  The reality is I could probably go a month (maybe more) without grocery shopping, where many of these folks literally might not eat that night without working for that day’s wages.