WORTHINGTON -- Rural Worthington farmers Bill and Dawn Gordon were in Vietnam a week ago as representatives of the Minnesota Soybean Growers' Research and Promotion Council.

The trip, in conjunction with the United Soybean Export Council, consisted primarily of building relationships with soybean millers, grinders and crushers. The MSR&PC, which funds protein trials and projects to test soybean oil content in Vietnam, was required to conduct an audit -- to do an inspection to see if soybean checkoff dollars used for the programs in Vietnam are being spent wisely -- said Bill Gordon, an American Soybean Association national director.

The Gordons, along with rural Fairfax farmer and MSR&PC chairman Paul Simonsen, were the only three Minnesotans in the group of seven that traveled to Vietnam. Another group traveled to Indonesia, where U.S. soybean checkoff funds are also invested.

After landing in Hanoi on June 25, the group met with officials at the Foreign Ag Service Office and then spoke with Vietnam's Minister of Agriculture.

"We talked about foreign policy ... agriculture trade and what we can do to make it better," Gordon explained. "We've already been doing a really good job."

Vietnam imports nearly three-quarters of its soybean meal, but because of differences in price, many of the beans are coming from India or South American countries like Brazil and Argentina.

"Not one person argued that our soybeans weren't better ... they were just more expensive," Gordon said, adding that about 30 percent of Vietnam's soybean imports come from the U.S.

"There's a big market potential (for us) to take that market share away," he added.

Gordon said the message they brought to Vietnam is that while U.S. soybeans may be a bit higher priced, they're also better quality.

"With the amino acid and fiber content of our beans, we wanted to help them understand we were a better value than beans from Brazil or Argentina," Gordon said. "That's what we need to keep working on.

"Brazil and Argentina don't do these trips -- they don't talk to farmers, they just ship the beans," he added.

People at Sojitz, a Japanese trading company in Vietnam, told the guests they favored getting the majority of their soybean meal from the United States, and said that with the price difference, they can "pitch the quality" of the product, Gordon said.

Before leaving Hanoi, the group also visited a feed mill and crushing plant that was "very similar" to Minnesota Soybean Processors at Brewster; as well as the port, where a 60,000-square-meter facility provides "in-house" storage for customers.

"They do wheat milling there, too," Gordon said, adding that they talked to the company officials about adding soybean meal to the flour to provide extra protein and nutritional value without altering the taste significantly.

The group also met with GreenFeed and AusFeed -- progressive feed mills in Vietnam that are managed by CEOs in their mid-40s.

Today, the country has about half the feed mills it once did, thanks to expanded efficiency and high-tech operations.

The mills supply feed to Vietnam's swine, broiler and specialty chicken markets. While the Gordons didn't have a chance to tour any farms, most of the land in production agriculture consists of small plots.

"We did drive by some of the rice paddies," said Gordon, adding that their travels took them primarily around the ports.

"Almost all of their feed is in bags because of the small producers in Vietnam," Gordon said as he showed photos of Vietnamese moving bags of grain onto smaller vessels that carried them down river to where it was needed.

Vietnam has the potential to be a major importer of U.S. soybeans, and that is something Gordon would like to see happen.

"There's 9 million people in just Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh city -- there's three-times the population in those two cities than there is in the whole state of Minnesota," he said.

Gordon said so many Americans equate Vietnam with the war, but the Vietnamese don't see it the same way.

"Over half the population of Vietnam was born after 1975 -- over half of the population doesn't even remember the war," he said. "Right now they're focused on prosperity, making money and moving ahead -- they're not thinking about the past. For a communist country, they are very progressive.

"The point is we've got to forget about the past and look at the future markets here. These people are willing to trade. They want prosperity, they want to feed themselves and their people. The generations now and coming up have no ill will toward the United States. We can feed them -- they have textiles and Nike shoes for us."

Forging relationships between the U.S. agricultural markets and the ag markets in Vietnam, Gordon said, is important.

"The Asian culture does not like doing business with you until they meet you," he said. "That's very important to them -- a relationship. That's why we do these trips."

Daily Globe Reporter Julie Buntjer may be reached at 376-7330.