WASHINGTON, D.C., U.S. — National Corn Growers Association Chief Executive Officer (CEO) Rick Tolman, who traveled to China with U.S. Grains Council President and CEO Thomas C. Dorr, found dramatic changes compared to 11 years ago when he served as the council's executive director for international operations.

“Over the past 25 years, we kept predicting China would grow into an important market for U.S. agriculture ‘in a few more years.’ I hadn’t realized, and I’m guessing many growers haven’t realized that in 2010 China became our number one export market,” said Tolman. “Now they have become a great export market for us, especially for soybeans, cotton, distiller’s dried grains, and wood. They are taking some corn, too. There needs to be more awareness of their importance among U.S. growers.”

Chinese sources delivered a wide range of messages about China’s long-term outlook as a customer for U.S. corn.

“We heard everything from ‘absolutely not, never’ to ‘yes, and there will be significant growth over the next few years,’” Tolman said. “In my opinion, the environment is right for U.S. sales to grow further. With economic growth and population growth, China can become a more and more significant market for us.”

Changing attitudes on both sides of the Pacific could further benefit the U.S.-China trade relationship, according to Tolman.

“Among the general public, we tend to think about China in terms of a U.S. trade deficit. But in agriculture, the U.S. has a comparative advantage and our trade balance with China is positive. We have a growing agricultural trade surplus.

“I was thinking that our relationship is most often described in terms of our differences — whether it’s over currency or some other issue — and that’s what makes the headlines. But our differences should pale in comparison with our huge trading relationship,” he said. “We need to focus less on our disputes and more on where we have interests in common and good reasons to work together.”

Tolman also warned of the dangers of linking trade with other issues.

“It is very clear from listening to them that our political leaders on both sides tie trade into politics, and we need to change that culture. Trade ought to be independent of politics — we should have learned that from the grain embargoes in the 1970s or from the recent delays in confirming free trade agreements,” he said. “We in agriculture have a lot to gain, and we should work on getting over that.”