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How China Hopes a Transplanted Iowa Farm Will Help Transform its Aging Ag Industry (and Boost Iowa Trade as Well)

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Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer of rural Maxwell, combines soybeans on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, in Polk County. The Kimberleys hosted Chinese President Xi Jingping on their farm when he visited Iowa in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer of rural Maxwell, combines soybeans on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, in Polk County. The Kimberleys hosted Chinese President Xi Jingping on their farm when he visited Iowa in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

LUANPING COUNTY, China — Rick Kimberley's farming heritage spans more than five generations and three continents. It's a story that shadows the rise of three world powers.

In the early 19th century, the family of Isaiah Kimberley, his great-great-grandfather, farmed near Coventry, England, as that nation grew into an empire that at one time ruled one-fourth of the people on Earth.

In 1866, Isaiah Kimberley immigrated to America, settling with his family in rural Iowa. His great-grandson Boyd wed Lois during World War II and witnessed his nation assert itself as a superpower after the war.

In 1972, their son, Rick, began farming the family ground on 240 Iowa acres. At age 67, he's now helping to plant the family’s agricultural footprint on a third continent, in a nation many consider to be the next frontier of global influence: China.

INTERACTIVE MAP: See the many places Iowa culture influences Chinese culture

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The growing agricultural tie between Iowa and China often is characterized as the backbone to the U.S.-China relationship.

Now Iowa and China are trying to capitalize on that tie to the benefit of each. Iowa hopes to ramp up trade and boost its farm economy, while China hopes to upgrade its agriculture as it pushes to increase its status as a world superpower.

In late September, as Rick Kimberley stood in a mountain valley in rural China at a groundbreaking ceremony for the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm, he called upon his family's rich ag legacy to emphasize how technology had so quickly transformed American farming.

And how that same lesson could help transform farming in China.

He told the gathering of Chinese businessmen and communist officials how his grandfather bought his first John Deere tractor in 1930, and how his father in 1950 started planting hybrid seed corn and applying commercial fertilizer.

Today, Rick and his son, Grant, harvest more than 4,000 acres of corn and soybeans with a couple of hired hands and massive combines whose computers precisely track yield, moisture and other key statistics for each row and acre.

“Why I’m telling you this is to show that we have always learned new ideas, had an open mind and tried new technology,” Rick Kimberley said. "This is how we engage and change farming from 1860 to 2017. … Every generation there has been a change."

PART 1: As Trump and Xi Jinping meet in China, an Iowan is the bridge between them

Ag 'the cornerstone' of Xi and Iowa

To tour urban China today is to see towering skyscrapers and construction cranes in every direction, ample evidence of the stark change of recent decades.

The transformation has been slower and subtler in the countryside, where corn still dries in modest piles along the road.

Kimberley in the last five years has traveled to more than 40 Chinese cities across 10 provinces to evangelize on modern farming.

But this river valley in rural Hebei Province northeast of Beijing is where China plans to mimic his Iowa family farmstead in detail — its shiny silver grain bins, the brick ranch home where he and his wife, Martha, live, and even the 5½-foot-long sofa where Chinese President Xi Jinping sat when he visited.

These are now key set pieces in the saga of China’s agricultural evolution, as Xi presses to modernize the operations of the nation's 260 million mostly small-scale farmers.

Xi visited the Kimberley farm five years ago on his get-to-know-you tour of America as an emerging world leader.

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Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer from rural Maxwell, climbs down from the cab of one of his tractors on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, on his farm in Polk County. The tractor has become well known by Chinese tourists because of a widely circulated photo of the President of China, Xi Jingping sitting in the tractor during his visit to the farm in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer from rural Maxwell, climbs down from the cab of one of his tractors on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, on his farm in Polk County. The tractor has become well known by Chinese tourists because of a widely circulated photo of the President of China, Xi Jingping sitting in the tractor during his visit to the farm in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

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Soybeans grow in late summer on the Kimberley farm outside of Maxwell, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. The Kimberley's hosted Chinese President Xi Jingping on their farm when he visited Iowa in 2012.  Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Soybeans grow in late summer on the Kimberley farm outside of Maxwell, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. The Kimberley's hosted Chinese President Xi Jingping on their farm when he visited Iowa in 2012.  Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Grant Kimberley, a sixth germination family farmer and Market Development Director for the Iowa Soybean Association, checks soybeans on his family's farm, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in rural Polk County. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Grant Kimberley, a sixth germination family farmer and Market Development Director for the Iowa Soybean Association, checks soybeans on his family's farm, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in rural Polk County. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer of Maxwell, stands at the top of one of his grain bins on a late summer day, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in rural Polk County. Kimberley's farm is being used as a model for the China-US Demonstration Farm being built in China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer of Maxwell, stands at the top of one of his grain bins on a late summer day, Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017, in rural Polk County. Kimberley's farm is being used as a model for the China-US Demonstration Farm being built in China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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In the mountains of Luanping County, land has been cleared for the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Hebei, China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

In the mountains of Luanping County, land has been cleared for the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Hebei, China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer from rural Maxwell, walks across the stage to speak during the groundbreaking of the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm in China will be modeled after Kimberley's farm in Iowa. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer from rural Maxwell, walks across the stage to speak during the groundbreaking of the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm in China will be modeled after Kimberley's farm in Iowa. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Representatives from Chinese and Iowan agriculture industries attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm is being built based on the farm that Chinese President Xi Jingping visited in Iowa in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Representatives from Chinese and Iowan agriculture industries attend the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm is being built based on the farm that Chinese President Xi Jingping visited in Iowa in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Mandarin characters accompany the English John Deere logo on a tractor set up for display during the groundbreaking of the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Mandarin characters accompany the English John Deere logo on a tractor set up for display during the groundbreaking of the China-U.S. Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Hebei Party Secretary, Zhafo Kezhi, US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, Vice Minister of Agriculture‎, Qu Donyu, and farmers from Iowa, Grant and Rick Kimberley, walk together through the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Hebei Party Secretary, Zhafo Kezhi, US Ambassador to China, Terry Branstad, Vice Minister of Agriculture‎, Qu Donyu, and farmers from Iowa, Grant and Rick Kimberley, walk together through the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer of rural Maxwell, holds up a photo taken in his living room when Chinese President Xi Jingping visited his Polk County farm in 2012, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Rick Kimberley, a fifth generation family farmer of rural Maxwell, holds up a photo taken in his living room when Chinese President Xi Jingping visited his Polk County farm in 2012, on Tuesday, Sept. 5, 2017. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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An American flag blows in the wind on a fall day at the Kimberley farm, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, outside of Maxwell. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

An American flag blows in the wind on a fall day at the Kimberley farm, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017, outside of Maxwell. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Soybeans ready to harvest on the Kimberley farm outside of Maxwell, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. The Kimberley's hosted Chinese President Xi Jingping on their farm when he visited Iowa in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Soybeans ready to harvest on the Kimberley farm outside of Maxwell, on Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2017. The Kimberley's hosted Chinese President Xi Jingping on their farm when he visited Iowa in 2012. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

The trip made the previously anonymous farm an integral part of Xi’s campaign to help steer his 1.4 billion people through the challenges of rampant urbanization, an aging agricultural workforce and sweeping demographic and economic change that threaten to undermine governmental authority.

The demonstration farm in China is a partnership between the Kimberleys and fellow Iowan Luca Berrone, an Italian immigrant who was the founding director of Iowa Sister States and an “old friend” to Xi who welcomed him to Iowa in 1985.

They formed Iowa China Farm LLC to consult on the project with Chinese developer Risesun.

“I believe that agriculture is something that is very much a common denominator," Berrone said. "… It was perhaps at the cornerstone of President Xi's visit to Iowa."

The Kimberley farm is just the first of six phases of a broader 3,300-acre complex expected to include everything from fruit groves to livestock research and yet another homage to rural Midwest life: China's own Disney-style approximation of a quintessential Iowa small town.

The farm was first proposed to the Kimberleys and Berrone by Ye Changqing, deputy director general of the Hebei People's Association for Friendship with Foreign Countries. Decades ago Ye was a college student in Iowa.

The massive complex is designed as “high-end eco-tourism” to draw perhaps half a million more people annually to rural Hebei. Many of them would be whisked there from Beijing on a new high-speed rail line under construction.

In Luanping, Kimberley was joined by his son, Grant, himself a fellow farmer but also executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board and director of market development for the Iowa Soybean Association.

China, Grant said, must "learn how to grow more with fewer people operating those farms. So, farm sizes will have to get a little larger. … They're going to have to pool resources and work together maybe on a village scale to justify using some of these advanced technologies and machines and seeds.”

Wendong Zhang, an assistant economics professor at Iowa State University in Ames, is intimately familiar with that challenge.

His grandfather’s village in coastal Shandong Province, just east of Hebei, packs 1,000 farmers onto fewer than 200 acres — a dense and old-fashioned production by hand compared with a mechanized American harvest.

That's why “an Iowa way will be one” among many strategies, Zhang said, because China still has “more than the entire population of the U.S. working in prime livestock and crop production.”

Mass unemployment is not an option, he said.

China already has been buoying farmers with key economic adjustments, he added, such as establishing new crop insurance and offering subsidies.

While Chinese farmers don’t own their land — another profound difference from Iowa’s legacy of family farms — the government now allows them to rent.

In that way agribusiness can string together a series of tracts for harvest, Zhang said, to “achieve a scale similar to U.S. production.”

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Rick Kimberley, farmer from Maxwell, Iowa, Qu Dongyu, China's Vice Minister of Agriculture and Terry Branstad, US Ambassador to China, break ground for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm in China will be modeled after Kimberley's farm in Iowa. 

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A demonstration of a Vermeer corn stalk baler is given during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

A demonstration of a Vermeer corn stalk baler is given during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

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Ambassador Terry Branstad and Hebei Party Secretary, Zhao Kezhi walk together through the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

Ambassador Terry Branstad and Hebei Party Secretary, Zhao Kezhi walk together through the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

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A man walks between a John Deere combine and tractor on display during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Kelsey Kremer. 

A man walks between a John Deere combine and tractor on display during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Kelsey Kremer. 

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Ambassador Terry Branstad's granddaughters Stella, in the foreground, and Sofia Costa play at the edge of a corn field during the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

Ambassador Terry Branstad's granddaughters Stella, in the foreground, and Sofia Costa play at the edge of a corn field during the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. 

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The China-US Demonstration Farm foundation stone is draped in red for the farm's groundbreaking ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

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Ambassador Terry Branstad and Rick Kimberley, an Iowa farmer, talk on stage during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm in China will be modeled after Kimberley's farm in Maxwell. Image by Kelsey Kremer. Iowa, 2017.

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Rick Kimberley, a farmer from Maxwell, Iowa, walks across the stage to speak during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm in China will be modeled after Kimberley's farm. Image by Kelsey Kremer. Iowa, 2017.

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Rick Kimberley, a farmer from Maxwell, Iowa, gives a speech during the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. The farm in China will be modeled after Kimberley's farm. Image by Kelsey Kremer. Iowa, 2017.

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Ambassador Terry Branstad gives a speech during the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017

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Ambassador Terry Branstad and his wife Chris Branstad bring their granddaughters, Stella and Sofia Costa with them to the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

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Ambassador Terry Branstad speaks with people attending the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017. 

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Ambassador Terry Branstad and his family pose for a photo on the China-US Demonstration Farm during its groundbreaking ceremony on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China. 

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People gather to get a photo of the Branstad family during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

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Chris Branstad talks with her granddaughters Stella and Sofia Costa while attending the groundbreaking ceremony of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

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Hebei Party Secretary, Zhafo Kezhi and Ambassador Terry Branstad walk together through the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

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Ambassador Terry Branstad, Rick Kimberley, and other distinguished guests are given a tour of John Deere implements on display during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017. 

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Grant Kimberley, market development director of the Iowa Soy Bean Association and farmer from Maxwell, Iowa, gives an interview during the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei, China.The farm in China will be modeled after the Kimberley family farm in Iowa. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017. 

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Two men take a look inside a John Deere combine on display during the groundbreaking ceremony or the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

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John Deere implements on display during the groundbreaking ceremony for the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

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Among the mountains of rural China, a collection of people from China and Iowa gather for the groundbreaking of the China-US Demonstration Farm on Saturday, Sept. 23, 2017, in Luanping County, Hebei. Image by Kelsey Kremer. China, 2017.

U.S. beef returns with flair

The Kimberleys no longer feed cattle on their Iowa farm. But one of this year’s top international agri-biz headlines has been the return of U.S. beef imports to China.

A “mad cow disease” scare in the United States led to a ban that lasted more than 13 years.

China’s per capita consumption of beef remains relatively low (No. 47 in the world), but its total consumption already ranks No. 1.

A year ago, Ambassador Terry Branstad was in China as Iowa governor to lobby China’s minister of agriculture, Han Changfu, on behalf of U.S beef — without realizing that he would be living in Beijing to see the result.

With more than 300 million Chinese expected to enter the middle class in the next dozen years, the boom market for meat is seen in Iowa as a mouth-watering opportunity.

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Attendees check-in at the first of a series of China, U.S. Beef road show events on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Attendees check-in at the first of a series of China, U.S. Beef road show events on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Cuts of U.S. beef are set out on display at the China, U.S. Beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Cuts of U.S. beef are set out on display at the China, U.S. Beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Chinese buyers take closer look at cuts of U.S. beef are set out on display at the China, U.S. beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing, China. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Chinese buyers take closer look at cuts of U.S. beef are set out on display at the China, U.S. beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing, China. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Chinese buyers take photos of cuts of U.S. beef are set out on display at the China, U.S. beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing, China. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Chinese buyers take photos of cuts of U.S. beef are set out on display at the China, U.S. beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing, China. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Rob Shuey, Vice President of international sales for Tyson Fresh Meats makes room at the Tyson booth for samples of U.S. Beef to be served at the China, U.S. Beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Rob Shuey, Vice President of international sales for Tyson Fresh Meats makes room at the Tyson booth for samples of U.S. Beef to be served at the China, U.S. Beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Chinese buyers try samples of U.S. beef at the China, U.S. Beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Chinese buyers try samples of U.S. beef at the China, U.S. Beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. Beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

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Chinese buyers try samples of U.S. beef at the China, U.S. beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing, China. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

Chinese buyers try samples of U.S. beef at the China, U.S. beef road show on Monday, Sept. 25, 2017, at the Intercontinental Hotel in Beijing, China. The road show was meant to introduce Chinese buyers to U.S. beef after the recent opening of that market. Image by Kelsey Kremer.

U.S. beef is already storming back in with gusto, in the form of a flashy road show that visited China's three largest cities of Beijing, Shanghai and Guangzhou.

A convention hall party in downtown Beijing in late September featured slabs of beef shrink-wrapped in plastic and displayed on ice, or offered in bite-sized chunks on toothpicks.

The beef road show is intended to reassure and train the agricultural community doing business in China about the gauntlet of regulations required of American livestock farmers who want to re-enter the market.

Cattle must be traceable to their birthplace, and farmers must adhere to strict standards that forbid growth hormones and demand detailed paperwork.

“You need to start with the education of the producer,” said Rob Shuey, senior vice president of international sales of fresh meats for Tyson. In today's American market, less than 1 percent of available beef currently meets the Chinese standard.

Raising cattle for China costs more, he said, "but once everybody understands what the protocols are, then we kind of get going relatively easy.”

More opportunity could await

China's new ethanol mandate — expanding a pilot program nationwide by 2020 that could quadruple ethanol use within the next few years — was motivated in part by the nation's oversupply of corn. But the U.S. stands to benefit in the long run.

When Xi was at the family farm in 2012, Rick Kimberley remembers how Xi talked of “agriculture as being a ballast, like in a sea or ocean and that can calm the waves" and "even help in diplomacy."

Only the future will tell whether the Demonstration Farm will yield all the results Xi hopes for.