WORTHINGTON - Rural Worthington cattle producer Matt Widboom has done his share of grilling over the years, fixing burgers or steaks for a variety of functions. But perhaps his toughest critics visited the Widboom farm Monday evening to sample some delicious, thick-cut steaks.

A delegation of Japanese chefs - an executive chef and three younger chefs - were joined by a meat buyer as well as Takemichi Yamashoji, U.S. Meat Export Federation senior marketing director, as they embarked on the first day of a week-long tour of southwest Minnesota agricultural businesses and farms.

Their Monday evening stop at the Widboom farm followed a tour of the JBS pork production facility in Worthington.

The three younger chefs actually won their trip to the United States and Minnesota in a beef cook-off contest hosted by their employer, Japan’s Prince Hotels and Resorts. The chain includes 38 locations with 1,500 chefs. Each chef won in a different category of the contest - one for western cuisine, one for Japanese cuisine and one for Chinese cuisine, explained Yamashoji.

He said the main objective of their visit was to learn about U.S. farms, processing facilities and food service establishments. Today, the group will tour PM Beef in Windom, with plans to stop at additional crop and livestock farms the remainder of the week. The trip was funded by the Minnesota Soybean Growers Association and the National Cattlemen’s Beef Association.

While at the farm Monday, the chefs had an opportunity to hear from Widboom about his cattle operation, and from other area farmers Tim Hansberger and Dusty Neugebauer. All three are members of the Nobles County Corn and Soybean Growers Association.

“It’s a huge opportunity for us to showcase our soybeans to the people who are buying our soybeans,” said Neugebauer. “Any time we get these trade teams in, it’s nice to show them around - show them what beans look like, show them some corn and see the beef that we’re producing.

“We want them to see where their product comes from and know that it’s grown in a healthy, sustainable and environmentally-friendly way,” he added.

Yamashoji said the chefs expressed to a cattle producer earlier in the day that their biggest concerns are food safety and product quality in the meats they purchase.

“Farmers can learn what consumers needs are,” he said. “I think that’s a very good opportunity to exchange information.”

The United States is the second largest exporter of beef to Japan, behind Australia, with Canada and Mexico rounding out the top four countries.

“For the U.S., Japan is the No. 1 market,” Yamashoji said, adding that the U.S. exported $1.5 billion in beef to Japan last year and $1.9 billion in pork products. Japan is the largest importer of U.S. pork.

“Japan is a very important, high-value market,” he shared. “Still, we have big competition. Other export countries are trying to export to Japan.

“We have big opportunities in the market in Japan for both U.S. beef and pork. I think we can displace other competitors to expand the market share.”

Yamashoji said Japanese consumers like the taste of U.S. beef and pork, which bodes well for southwest Minnesota livestock producers.

“Japanese consumers, they love grain-fed beef and also hogs,” he said. “U.S. corn and soybeans are very high quality, and high quality corn and soybean makes high quality beef and pork.”