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Japanese trade team visits local farmers

Brian Korthals/Daily Globe Livestock producer Matt Widboom (front left) speaks with members of a Japanese delegation touring his farm Tuesday night north of Worthington.

WORTHINGTON -- Six senior managers of Ito Ham in Japan and a senior marketing director for the U.S. Meat Export Federation (USMEF) made a stop at two rural Worthington farms Tuesday evening as part of a week-long tour of beef, pork and grain operations in the Midwest.

After spending the morning with industry exporters in the Twin Cities, the group traveled to southwest Minnesota to tour cattle feedlot operations at the John Widboom farm and visit with corn, soybean and beef producers during an evening at the Bill Gordon farm.

Gordon said the visit, organized by the USMEF and the Minnesota Soybean Research and Promotion Council, is important to the state's agricultural industry and to its producers.

"For just soybeans alone, every other row of soybeans is exported, whether as a whole bean or meal," Gordon said. "It's also exported as meat."

Japan represents the second largest buyer of U.S.-produced meat, spending roughly $4 billion annually.

"It means a lot to our bottom line and our market," said Gordon, who was hosting the contingent as recently-elected vice president of the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association board. "These (visits) are really important to all farmers, whether you raise soybeans, beef or pork or even chickens. This one-on-one relationship is very important."

Ito Ham can be compared to the size of Hormel's operations in Minnesota, said Sam Ziegler, with the MSR&PC.

"They're a very large and important customer of ours," he said. "The whole purpose of the trip is to show our customers -- Ito Ham -- how we take care of our product, how we grow our product, and show them that we can be a reliable, continuing source of meat, with the highest quality, safest and abundant supply for them."

At the Widboom farm, USMEF senior marketing director Takemichi Yamashoji served as a translator as Matt Widboom described the family's cattle feeding operation. Widboom explained the breed of cattle they raise, answered questions about feed efficiency, finishing weights and the premiums paid for the family's participation in the non-hormone-treated cattle (NHTC) program.

"We are a small operation, so the niche market that provides a premium allows us to stay in business," Widboom told the group.

The Widbooms have their cattle processed at PM Beef in Windom, which the Japanese delegation plans to tour today.

Yamashoji said Ito Ham already has a purchasing relationship with the PM Beef.

Two days into the trip, he said, "We've learned a lot about safety. We had presentations from packers and processors, and we will take this information back to Japan to discuss new business."

And that is what Minnesota producers hope for.

"Face to face conversations and one-on-one questions are still a solid way of doing business," said Widboom.

"The importance of continuing trade is huge," added Ziegler. "We export one out of every 12 pigs to Japan, and one out of four pigs will be exported out of the U.S.

"Every billion dollars of pork or beef exports is 13,000 jobs," he said. "If we can increase our exports, producers of livestock here ... in Minnesota, the U.S., Worthington -- everyone is going to have a lot more to gain from it."

Julie Buntjer

Julie Buntjer joined the Globe newsroom in December 2003, after working more than nine years for weekly newspapers. A native of Worthington, she has a bachelor's degree in agriculture journalism. Find more of her stories of farm life, family and various other tidbits at

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