U.S. farmer looks to China to market organic wheat

CHEYENNE, Wyo. — This fall, China will start importing its first-ever shipments of organic millet and wheat from the United States.

Their origin: Clint Jessen’s farm north of Pine Bluffs.

Jessen appears set to become the first American farm approved by the Chinese government to export the grains, after Chinese agricultural inspectors scrutinized his operation recently.

Come harvest time, Jessen said he expects to send a relatively small shipment — 20,000-30,000 bushels each of millet and wheat — to China, where it will be turned into high-end baby food.

But he hopes that amount will grow, as China has seen its organic food industry balloon in recent years. Last year, China’s organic food sales reached $472 million last year, according to People’s Daily, the official newspaper of the Communist Party of China.

But the country imported only about $20 million worth of organic food in 2009, according to a report by the International Trade Center.

Jessen, a fourth-generation farmer whose 18,000-acre farm has been in his family since 1946, said he’s excited by the opportunity to have a whole new market for his crops.

“I think that it opens up a whole new window for not only my product, but organics in general, as well as Wyoming producers and U.S. producers that are organics,” he tells the Casper Star-Tribune. “It’s going to give us another buyer — and they are very strong buyers, with 1.4 billion people in the country.”

Jessen said he found out last week from a large grain broker that the Chinese wanted to buy from him. He said he believed his farm was chosen in part because of its large size: that Chinese officials wanted to initially certify just one large farm as organic instead of a number of small farms.

Chinese standards for organic food, he said, are similar to U.S. rules, which include no prohibited pesticides, no genetically-modified organisms and no synthetic fertilizers.

The Chinese officials did conduct a more rigorous testing of his soil than their American counterparts, Jessen said. Initial results show he passed the inspection with flying colors, he said.

Wyoming Business Council Agribusiness Director Cindy Garretson-Weibel said she hopes Jessen’s achievement could lead other organic farms in Wyoming to ship to China in the future.

“I think it’s an opportunity to open the door,” she said.

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