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From Michigan's fields to Chinese dinner tables

China is already playing a role in Michigan’s effort to diversify its economy. The country’s 1.3 billion people don’t want just cars from Michigan companies, they also want Michigan foods.

From baby food to blueberries, Michigan is tapping into a new and profitable market in China.

Joanne Roehm is co-owner of John Marion, Inc., which owns three grain elevators in the state, including one in Saline. During my visit, swirls of thick dust clogged the air, while trucks and tractors from local farms lined up for their turn, dumping soybeans into a pit and then on to a conveyer, distributing them tothe bins.

Business is up, for Roehm and for the farmers who sell their crops to her. A big reason is a significant uptick in overseas demand for soybeans, corn, and red wheat, especially from China. Roehm said these days, believe it or not, agriculture in Michigan is profitable.

"Back in the 80s and 90s, parents were saying, get a different job, there’s no money in farming, " said Roehm."Whereas now, they can see that, you know, this is a good life and you can make a living, if you manage it properly, so it will grow the Michigan economy, I believe."

Soybeans and corn from Michigan and other U.S. states are helping China produce more meat. Demand is also growing for processed foods. China is on the radar screen for Michigan companies that make cereal, infant formula, baby food, and dry milk. China wants more Michigan grown lumber. Even some Michigan wines are being placed on Chinese dinner tables. Ken Nye is with the Michigan Farm Bureau.

"Their population is large, and they have this very rapidly expanding middle class that can consume the kind of food that we can grow here in the United States," said Nye.

Nye said it’s been about eight years since an agriculture-specific trade delegation went to China. It may be time for another.

But the state’s blueberry producers aren’t waiting for that delegation, because there’s too much at stake. Robert Verloop just returned from China. He’s with Naturipe, which owns a consortium of blueberry farms in Michigan. Verloop said Chinese people know a lot about the reputed health benefits of blueberries; the fruit is ubiquitous in products in China from yogurt to juice. Demand for fresh blueberries is growing, too.

"They trust products that come from the United States, because of the rigorous certification programs that we go through, and the quality assurance programs," said Verloop. "Made in America means a lot."

Verloop said blueberry producers think demand for the product will double in just a few years. Taking that bet means new plants are already in the ground in Michigan. Many of the plants are new varieties that produce longer and ship better. The plants will mature, hopefully just as the industry takes off.

"The question isn’t so much do we have enough fruit for the demand, it's sizing it up so demand and supply grow at the same time."

Verloop agrees with Joanne Roehm, the Saline grain elevator owner, that the increased demand from China will help make the state’s farmers and processors more stable and more profitable and create jobs. And as China’s middle class continues to grow, the state’s agricultural relationship with the country will also grow.

Tracy Samilton covers energy and transportation, including the auto industry and the business response to climate change for Michigan Public. She began her career at Michigan Public as an intern, where she was promptly “bitten by the radio bug,” and never recovered.
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