Brewster farmer joins trade mission to Vietnam
BREWSTER -- With more than 10 percent annual growth in gross domestic product (GDP), Vietnam is quickly becoming a country that relies on partnerships throughout the world to supplement its economy, and agriculture is vital to its future.
For years, the people of Vietnam have slowly been developing relationships with farmers, agricultural processors and companies right here in Minnesota, and a trade mission to Southeast Asia last week helped strengthen those ties.
Ron Obermoller, a crop producer from rural Brewster and board member of both the Minnesota Soybean Processors and Minnesota Soybean Growers Association (MSGA), was among more than 20 Minnesotans to travel to Vietnam Nov. 26 through Dec. 4 on what was to be a Governor's Trade Mission. Gov. Mark Dayton was not a part of the trip, although there was representation from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. MSGA helped sponsor the mission trip.
"The purpose of the trip was to promote commodity trade with Vietnam," Obermoller said on Tuesday. The group visited half a dozen feed mills, toured a soybean processing plant quite similar to the MnSP plant at Brewster and had face-to-face meetings with nearly 30 different importers.
Among the Minnesota contingent were feed manufacturers, processors, representatives from animal health companies and commodity groups, exporters and University of Minnesota researchers.
"They would like to get away from being held hostage by the ADMs and Cargills of the world," Obermoller said of the Vietnam people. "They would like to have their own contacts -- a face of who is growing their beans for them. Quite a few of the buyers have gone to school in the U.S. or taken training with the U.S.D.A. (U.S. Department of Agriculture). They are quite familiar with the U.S. and our technology."
In his first visit to Vietnam, Obermoller said he was struck by the size of the emerging market in Vietnam. The Minnesota group spent most of their time at stops in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.
"They're not near the size of China, but they are growing much faster," he said. "We went over there with the idea of helping their feed industry so they could export meat to China.
As fast as their consumption is growing, they're going to have a hard time keeping up with consumption within their country. I guess that's good news."
Vietnam's import market is still in its infancy, and Obermoller said its potential is far greater than its actual impact on the U.S. market at this time. Meanwhile, its growth on the landscape is fairly impressive, with new homes and new businesses continually under construction. A soybean crush facility on the tour was constructed with the use of Minnesota-grown technology
"I'm involved in the local plant, so I knew what I was looking at," Obermoller said. "It's probably a little more crude than that in Minnesota, but it's pretty much the same size and same equipment that goes in there."
Soybeans are shipped into the facility from a port 100 kilometers away, and all of the grain arrives in bags. The plant supports approximately 300 employees, compared to MnSP, which has a workforce of nearly 50, said Obermoller.
Because the people of Vietnam use palm oil for cooking, the country is most interested in importing soybean meal and dried distiller's grain to support their livestock sector. Most of the feed mills they toured marketed to farmers in aquaculture, poultry and pork production.
Farm tours were not a part of the excursion because of the Foot and Mouth Disease that is prevalent in Vietnam. Still, Obermoller had an opportunity to talk to a farmer who, with his dad, had found jobs in town to help support the farming operation maintained by the man's mother.
"It was a very small farm, but they're getting up to three crops a year from it," Obermoller said. Many of the farmers are rice producers, although bananas and pineapple are grown for local use. They grow very little corn.
"Their biggest crop is aquaculture. A lot of the shrimp you eat comes from Vietnam -- they market the huge, jumbo shrimp," he added.
During one of their excursions, Obermoller said they traveled to Ha Long Bay in the Indian Ocean.
The bay is considered one of the seven natural wonders of Asia with its towering limestone cliffs that stretch out for about 50 square miles. While there, they saw fishing villages set up, complete with banks and grocery stores.
The cluster of house boats included walkways with openings where they can pull up their catch of king crab, blue claw crab, oysters, shrimp and other seafood.
Obermoller described the Vietnam people as very friendly and industrious, interesting and independent.
"They are very proud of their country and very curious of Americans," he said. "They're a communist country, but they've opened up for free trade. Most companies (there) started in 1997 or 1998 -- they're just getting their feet underneath them."
Through the connections made during the trade mission, Obermoller sees expanding partnerships between Minnesota and Vietnam.
"We've invited them to come, especially in the fall," he said. "(The relationships) will be continuing back and forth now. There's been a lot of contact in the past, but this (trip) gave them companies to work with, names, email addresses and faces.
"Some of these (Minnesota) companies are planning to go back in a few weeks," he added. "I'd be surprised if there isn't quite a bit of business (generated). This is kind of the start of it."