Does Roberts think U.S. rice could be shipped to China within a year?

“No one has set a time frame. But I think we could see this happening within six months, certainly within a year as long as we move forward promptly. That’s certainly a possibility and I feel we’re on the brink.”

China has a tremendous challenge in feeding a vast population. That’s always been the case, says Roberts. “The demographics there mean they’re looking for other sources for rice. According to First Grain, in the first four months of 2012, China bought some 680,000 metric tons of rice from Vietnam. They bought nearly 400,000 metric tons in April alone. Their sources indicate China is expected to buy more than 1.2 million metric tons of rice in 2012 from Vietnam – that’s about three times what they bought last year. They’re also bringing in rice from Cambodia and Pakistan.”

Yielding envisions U.S. milled rice as a premium product in upscale Chinese supermarkets and is extremely complimentary of the Emerging Markets Program of the USDA’s Foreign Agriculture Service. “In 2006, we received our first grant money under the program. That led to the initial work in supermarkets and tastings. The USDA has since encouraged us to continue those marketing efforts and has helped us with funding to conduct them.

“The Chinese buyers have an attitude of ‘Let’s get this protocol worked out. We want to do this business.’ They know it’ll draw attention to be able to offer their shoppers high-quality, U.S.-packaged rice.”

Having worked huge Chinese cities in the past, Yielding has submitted a proposal to the FAS to do outreach in smaller Chinese cities. “That would continue the taste tests we’ve already done and show their importers that there’s a widespread desire by the population to buy U.S. rice. We’ve already been doing that in the major cities – 30 million and 50 million people – and now we want to work in smaller cities of 5 million to 10 million. We also want to visit different regions, especially in northern China, and broaden outreach with long-grain, medium-grain and short-grain.

“Gathering that data will only help us with marketing. We’ve gotten where we are today because we did market research. We let the Chinese consumers taste the rice, let them make a decision. Then we shared that data with the importers and that gave them confidence going forward.”

Through the years-long process, the USRPA “has developed a very unique and positive relationship with the Chinese authorities,” says Roberts. “That’s played the most important role in the whole set-up. Our relationship with them and the work done in China – surveys, in-store promotions, tastings that we will continue – is paying off and helped speed things up.”

It hasn’t been easy.

“When we first started this effort around 2005, I remember discussing this with some (U.S. rice leaders) and they laughed. ‘That will never happen! Not in China.’

“But we had encouragement from some people who’d spent considerable time in China and understood the direction of the population and the changes in food needs. They said there was an opportunity developing and said to keep at it.”

Besides China, Yielding is hopeful of opening even more markets for U.S. rice.

“It’s important that we engage the Iraqis in Iraq. The Thais and Indians and Vietnamese head into Baghdad and get the business. We always insist their buyers come to the United States or meet in Dubai or somewhere else.”

Earlier this year, “I went to (Arkansas Rep.) Rick Crawford and (Texas Rep.) Ted Poe. I asked ‘Will y’all go over there with us to talk to the Iraqis? We need to sit down on their turf and talk about the problems they have, their specifications, and sell them on our rice.’ They agreed to go over with a group of us wanting to export rice to Iraq.

“I’ve spoken with the FAS people in Iraq and they’re supporting the idea. Hopefully, we’ll get the grant and be able to travel there.”