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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

It is a country that imports about 800,000 metric tons of wheat each year, a mere 90 miles from the United States. Yet the Cuban wheat market has long been a source of optimism and frustration for U.S. wheat farmers. With the change in administrations, there is hope for re-engagement with Cuba, but ultimately the 60-year-old embargo and associated policies still stand as a solid barrier to beneficial trade.

General public opinion polls on Cuba policy consistently show most Americans favor more engagement, the last decade has seen a roller coaster of changes in U.S. policy. Under the Obama-Biden Administration, there were efforts to establish a new relationship and relax tensions. This included a new interpretation of “cash in advance” rules that apply to payment for any agricultural commodities, bilateral exchanges by technical staff in regulatory agencies and the reopening of the U.S. embassy in Havana. However, none of those changes resulted in actual wheat purchases. Then the Trump Administration further restricted trade by limiting any business conducted between American companies and state-owned companies (such as flour mills) in Cuba.


“Wheat is an important food grain that should be above politics, but the embargo will likely have to end before wheat farmers can help … feed the Cuban people.”


With Biden’s return to the White House, Cuba watchers are anxiously awaiting the next curve in the roller coaster ride and are optimistic the administration will return to the Obama-Biden policy of re-engagement. However, any realistic effort to expand ag trade with Cuba needs to focus on the other end of Pennsylvania Avenue by working to secure meaningful change within the halls of Congress and addressing the bipartisan opposition to trade with Cuba.

Just such a Congressional effort was launched last week by U.S. Senators John Boozman of Arkansas and Michael Bennet of Colorado with the introduction of the Agricultural Export Expansion Act. That bill would allow private financing of agricultural commodities by U.S. companies – a small first step toward normalizing the trading relationship, but an important one to put U.S. companies on a near level playing field when working with Cuban buyers. Several U.S. agricultural organizations including U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and the National Association of Wheat Growers (NAWG) signed a letter of support for the effort as ad hoc members of the United States Agricultural Coalition for Cuba.

More Legislation

The Ag Export Expansion bill is not the only pro-normalization effort within Congress. U.S. Senators Jerry Moran of Kansas, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Patrick Leahy of Vermont, all long-time Cuba trade advocates, earlier this year introduced the Freedom to Export to Cuba Act, which would lift substantial portions of the embargo, including restrictions prohibiting transactions between U.S. and Cuban firms.

Farmers are right to be interested in opening the Cuban wheat market. Cuba produces no wheat domestically and would be a substantial U.S. market if government barriers were to be lifted. But for any of that optimism to come to fruition, it is going to take a literal act of Congress.

“Wheat is an important food grain that should be above politics,” said former USW President Alan Tracy in 2017, “but the embargo will likely have to end before wheat farmers can help meet the increasing demand for agricultural products to help feed the Cuban people.”

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By USW Vice President of Policy Dalton Henry

Dispute cases in the World Trade Organization (WTO) take a notoriously long time to resolve, but there seems to be at least an outside chance one of the longest-running disputes affecting wheat trade could be nearing its last chapter. Three months ago, the United States and the European Union paused their respective punitive tariffs to work toward a negotiated solution in the long-running civil aircraft dispute over subsidies – often referred to as the Airbus/Boeing disputes. That détente temporarily ended tariffs on non-durum U.S. wheat imports.

Now the two governments are set to meet at a major summit next week, where trade, including the aircraft dispute, is expected to be a major topic.

High Hopes

The optimists have had high hopes for an aircraft dispute resolution since the Biden Administration took office. The campaign rhetoric included reinstating international partnerships and rebuilding multilateral institutions. The aircraft dispute even got major billing on Capitol Hill during then-USTR nominee Katherine Tai’s confirmation hearing. When asked about the potential for a resolution, she wittily quipped that “I would very much be interested in figuring out … how to land that particular plane.”

Both sides have been mum about details of what a resolution might look like, with only until July 11 before tariffs are set to snap back into place.

On The Other Hand

This leads us to the other side, where the cynics (your author included) strongly supported the four-month tariff suspension but know how hard it is to resolve such an intractable dispute in such a short time. The slow pace of confirming political nominees at USTR supports that opinion. The agency has an incredible team of career staff, and Ambassador Tai is quite capable of resolving the dispute. But will that be enough to tips the scales in favor of a long-term resolution? In search of an answer for that question, all eyes turn toward the upcoming U.S.-EU summit, slated for mid-June in Brussels.

Working toward a civil aircraft dispute resolution is one of many topics between the two governments. But the outcome will provide an early test of the Biden administration’s ability to find a trade policy solution that reopens markets and meets its self-stated priority for a “worker-centric trade policy.”

Wheat Trade Needs More Certainty

Industries like those engaged in the wheat trade on both sides of the dispute need predictability. A four-month delay may provide a boost of urgency to negotiators. Still, such short-term delays are challenging for flour mills and wheat exporters alike, leaving both with only uncertainty.

For example, if tariffs return, will shipments in transit be exempt? What about supplies contracted but not yet “on the water?” If a mill agrees to supply a specific flour customer, will they be able to purchase the wheat to meet those flour specifications?

If it becomes clear that no long-term resolution is possible ahead of the July 11 end of the tariff pause, negotiators would be widely praised by industry for quickly announcing an extension of the duty suspension.

Whether or not a permanent aircraft dispute resolution will be found is hard to predict. U.S. hard red spring wheat farmers will be watching the outcome closely, as will their valued European customers, anxious for the return of days when weather and prices were easier to predict than government barriers to trade.

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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

A coalition of Pacific Northwest (PNW) agricultural and commercial organizations recently responded with serious concerns to a controversial dam breaching proposal that would tear out four dams on the Snake River.

The dam breaching proposal, presented by U.S. Representative Mike Simpson of Idaho, aims to restore fish populations on the river while compensating groups affected by removing the dams. However, in a letter to government officials, the coalition said the plan would decimate U.S. producers’ ability to move wheat and other products to overseas customers and be of questionable environmental benefit.

The National Association of Wheat Growers joined state wheat organizations in Idaho, Washington, Oregon and Montana in signing the letter.

No Dams, No Barges

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) has shared stories about the sustainability and reliability of wheat transportation by barge. The Columbia and Snake Rivers are essential parts of a logistical system that moves more than half of all U.S. wheat exports every year to more than 20 Pacific Rim countries. Wheat loaded on the Snake River makes up 10% of all U.S. wheat exports.

Barge traffic on the Columbia-Snake River System is the most cost-efficient and sustainable connection between U.S. wheat farmers and their customers overseas. And more easily navigable, safe and efficient barge transportation depends on river locks at each of the targeted dams.

Uncertain Results

USW shares the opinion stated in the coalition letter that improving fish populations are important and admirable goals. Still, there is little certainty removing the dams will restore fish populations to a level that would satisfy environmental advocacy groups involved in litigation over the river’s management.

The river system’s current management strikes a balance between all river uses—providing renewable electricity, transportation, irrigation flood control, and recreation. The dam breaching proposal would eliminate nearly all these benefits of the river. It would also subject interior PNW communities to a wide range of environmental and economic impacts.

Barge Traffic Safe for Now

Fortunately, U.S. wheat importers should not worry that the dams are in imminent danger. Members of Congress have not yet written legislation on the dam breaching proposal and it has not attracted much political support.

Hopefully, the proactive and vocal nature of river stakeholders early in this process will highlight the shortcomings of the proposal’s fish recovery portion and the enormous costs for trade, the region and the U.S. Treasury.

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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

Just over a year ago, on Jan. 15, 2020, the U.S.-China “Phase One” agreement was signed, leading to the eventual waiver of China’s retaliatory tariffs against U.S. agricultural products. Those actions opened the door again to the largest wheat consumer in the world after nearly two years in which U.S. wheat producers were all but shut out.

While the final results of the Phase One agreement will not be written for several months, early returns show the agreement paid off in a big way for U.S. wheat producers and their Chinese customers.

The Phase One agreement contained both specific purchase targets for agricultural commodities, and structural changes to China’s import systems. To date, much of the celebration and criticism has centered on the purchase targets — with very little attention paid to the structural changes that in some instances resolved disputes decades in the making.

One dispute of relevance to wheat had been at the center of a WTO case dating back to 2015 on China’s administration of their grain tariff rate quotas (TRQ). In a case the U.S. won in mid-2019, the WTO panel found that China had not administered the quota in such as way as to be “transparent, fair or predictable.” With the WTO case entering compliance at roughly the same time as Phase One agreement was being negotiated, U.S. negotiators included additional language in the agreement to build on the WTO case win and ensure eventual Chinese compliance. That language included stipulations making clear that Chinese “State Trading Enterprises” are subject to the same rules as private companies and specific transparency requirements to make it possible to evaluate Chinese compliance with the allocation and reallocation provisions that are so important to the proper functioning of their TRQ.

With those new rules in place, China is projected to import 9 million metric tons (MMT) of wheat this marketing year — a 25-year high, and almost double their previously highest TRQ purchases. China turned to U.S. wheat producers for a significant portion of that higher import volume. Since the signing of the Phase One agreement, U.S. wheat sales to China have totaled more than 2.8 MMT — nearly 90% above USW’s long-term pre-trade war average. Those imports have come from four different classes of U.S. wheat and helped meet the demand for U.S. wheat from China’s private flour millers. This import volume is likely to make China the fourth largest export market for U.S. producers in marketing year 2020/21, which ends May 31.

Chinese wheat buyers and flour milling managers visited the Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, Ore., in May 2019.

Chinese wheat buyers and flour milling managers visited the Wheat Marketing Center in Portland, Ore., in May 2019 during a Contracting for Wheat Value seminar sponsored by USW. USW/Beijing Country Director Shirley Lu (second from right) translates as Wheat Marketing Center Technical Director Dr. Jayne Bock (third from left) and a colleague demonstrated falling number analysis.

There are likely to be substantial trade negotiations between China and the United States in the coming months — something wheat producers should welcome. The Phase One agreement was never supposed to be an “end-all agreement” — in fact, when it was announced, plans were already in place to start on “Phase Two,” which were eventually scrapped after COVID-19 turned the world on its head.

With a new U.S. administration taking office this week, many in agriculture are watching closely to see which way the political winds will blow those discussions with China. While there may be a desire by some for a “fresh start” in the China relationship, the Biden administration would do well for U.S. agriculture to pick up where Phase One left off and continue to build on the tremendous export potential for China. President-elect Biden’s early statements and plans to keep tariffs in place on Chinese goods until they can be reviewed are an important first step in the right direction.

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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

The dispute between the Chinese and U.S. government over wheat production subsidies continues. Late last month, the U.S. government officially challenged China’s purported compliance with the World Trade Organization (WTO) dispute decision that found China spent billions more on agricultural subsidies than their WTO membership allowed. That case was filed in 2016 by the Office of the United States Trade Representative (USTR) to bring the Chinese programs – and their effects on U.S. wheat producers – under control.

The subsidy programs at the heart of the WTO dispute are China’s Minimum Procurement Prices (MPP) guarantee to Chinese producers. This program would be most similar in U.S. farm policy to our Marketing Loan program. But unlike the U.S. version, the MPP is set well above world wheat prices and, as such, creates an artificial incentive for farmers produce more wheat at the expense of a more diverse range of crops. Last year’s MPP for wheat in China was $8.60/bushel; compare that to the U.S. Marketing Loan program at $3.38/bushel and to current U.S. FOB HRW prices at $5.69/bushel.

It is no wonder then why Chinese producers have dramatically increased wheat production, up 25 percent from before the policy was put in place. Even more distorting to the global market, much of that production is building stocks rather than being made available at affordable prices to China’s flour millers. Those stocks are projected to end this year at an astounding 162.5 million metric tons (MMT), comprising 52 percent of the entire world’s wheat ending stocks. That volume represents more than an entire year’s consumption in China.

 

USDA currently predicts that China will hold more than 162 MMT of world wheat stocks at the end of marketing year 2020/21.

 

The WTO dispute panel recognized this issue in ruling that China had far exceeded its WTO limits on wheat and rice subsidies. In the process of a WTO case, once a ruling has been issued the involved countries agree to a “reasonable period of time” for the policies to be changed and for the offending country to come into compliance. The reasonable period for this case ended last month with China claiming (and the United States disagreeing) that they were in compliance.

A closer look at China’s claims of compliance reveals changes designed only to work on paper. China notified changes to their policy for the coming year that attempt to cap the amount of wheat that the Chinese government will purchase at the MPP. In theory, a laudable effort, but in practice one with little impact, as the cap is set to be at 37 MMT, 40 percent more than their five-year average annual purchases.

As a result, the cap allows China to adjust the math behind calculating their compliance, without actually changing anything about the operation of the program or the unfortunate creation of burdensome stocks. That’s because with a cap set so far above previous purchase amounts, a farmer can approach a flour miller and demand to be paid the MPP. If the miller refuses, the farmer knows the government will purchase the wheat at the inflated MPP. That dynamic allows the distorting effects of the MPP to reach far beyond the actual bushels that the Chinese government purchases.

Market-based reform will have the potential to improve the situation dramatically for Chinese millers, as wheat would be grown and traded according to quality attributes and actual value, rather than that set by government regs. It would also pave the way to reducing the current wheat storage burden – one similar to the situation faced by China’s corn industry just a few years ago. In that instance, program reforms worked and brought stocks to reasonable levels, providing domestic users with more choice and storage capacity.

China’s wheat subsidies and the excess stocks that they produce have been well-documented by U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) and other groups over time, as has the revenue losses they create for U.S. farmers and indeed other farmers around the world.

USW welcomes the continued work on this case by the USTR and hopes to see an end to distortive policies like this that impede our ability to meet global demand for a diverse supply of high-quality wheat.

 

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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

For the better part of a century the United States has been known as the breadbasket of the world. Today, that reputation continues ringing as true as ever at a time when it may be needed most.

Reliability and certainty go hand in hand. That is why the U.S. export grain industry and the government agencies that protect and promote U.S. agriculture snapped into action when the first COVID-19 “shelter-in-place” orders forced many workers to stay home. Individual businesses developed mitigation plans including more cleaning shifts and personal protective equipment for employees. Workarounds were found to limit staff member contact and to ensure trade could continue to flow, even when items as routine as loading paperwork were being curtailed.

It wasn’t just private businesses that took steps to keep wheat exports flowing smoothly. While other countries used bureaucratic delays on regular functions such as permits and inspections to slow down exports, the U.S. Federal Grain Inspection Service (FGIS) issued a public letter stating they would “take all necessary steps” to ensure export inspection services would continue unabated. The Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) issued a similar letter, promising to continue critical inspections and issuance of phytosanitary certificates. Both agencies clearly understand that maintaining U.S. agricultural exports is vital, not just to the U.S. economy, but also to meeting our commitments to our partners around the world.

Federal Grain Inspection Service

USDA wasn’t the only federal agency to recognize that U.S. farmers need to stay on the job. The Department of Homeland Security is responsible for providing federal guidance in national emergencies, especially concerning critical industries. In less than a month, they have expanded the guidance defining “essential” workers and should, therefore, stay on the job in the event of “stay-at-home” or “shelter-in-place” orders to include the entire grain supply chain. That guidance includes workers in transportation, inspections, production, input suppliers and even business providing repair services. Keeping those businesses running, keeps U.S. farms running, and helps give our overseas customers peace of mind.

U.S. wheat is still flowing through U.S. ports such as here in Portland, Oregon.

As we saw at a container facility in the Port of Houston when a worker tested positive for COVID-19, there will no doubt still be small disruptions as we work through this uncertain time. But with government and industry commitment to maintaining supply chains, wheat will continue flow to customers at home and abroad from the U.S. breadbasket.

If you have questions, please contact your local U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) representative here.

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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

The U.S., Mexico, Canada Agreement (USMCA) is moving steadily, if somewhat slowly, to becoming an implemented trade treaty. Mexico’s government first ratified the agreement in June 2019. At the request of the U.S. House of Representatives, the agreement was revised and signed again by all three countries in December 2019, after which Mexico’s government voted to ratify the revised agreement.  President Trump signed the U.S. implementing language for the agreement in a widely attended ceremony on January 29, 2020. And now, ratification is being considered by Canada’s parliament, a process many trade watchers expect to run through March 2020 at least.

The latest step puts us a mere hop, skip and a jump from having a new trade agreement in place with two of the U.S. agriculture’s largest customers. Most importantly to wheat industry stakeholders, the new agreement moves us past the bold threats of withdrawal from NAFTA and fully protects access to U.S. wheat on a duty-free basis for Mexican customers, modernizes sanitary and phytosanitary (SPS) provisions and removes the largest remaining barrier (eligibility for grades) for U.S. producers who want to sell wheat to Canadian elevators.

On that final point, USMCA assures that U.S. wheat sold in Canada is not automatically graded as feed. It is one of the more significant new provisions in the USMCA. President Trump specifically mentioned it in his remarks at the White House signing ceremony. Western Canadian wheat growers support it.

Under the agreement, U.S. farmers interested in taking wheat across the border will still have to verify that wheat is one of the varieties registered in Canada. But it is worth celebrating that farmers near the Canadian border will have additional local outlets for grain, potential market arbitrage opportunities and a basic fairness between growers on either side of the border. These grain grading changes will give Canada a reprieve from the threat of non-compliance with the WTO’s “national treatment” standard and forces legislative changes that the Canadian government had promised to make for the better part of a decade (but never actually put into place).

Necessary changes in domestic regulations across all three countries are still needed. Those changes will be followed by a 60-day monitoring period to verify the changes are being implemented. An exchange of letters between the three countries is the seal for the deal. Wheat growers and buyers in USMCA – the new NAFTA – are very much looking forward to that day.

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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

Each year, the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative (USTR) compiles and publishes the National Trade Estimates (NTE) report — a comprehensive report detailing barriers that U.S. exporters, including wheat farmers, face in markets around the world.

The first step in compiling the massive report (last year’s came in at 537 pages), is to collect feedback from the export stakeholders. U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) participates in this process each year by consulting with our offices overseas, talking to customers and researching trade barriers. That work culminated last week when USW submitted to USTR its compiled information, covering barriers in a dozen wheat importing countries.

Each year, many of the challenges highlighted in USW’s submission are issues that remain unresolved. This year, however, USW’s reports about on-going concerns with China and India were substantially changed.

The new report on barriers in China reflect the progress made since last year to bring China’s wheat import tariff rate quota (TRQ) and wheat subsidy policies into compliance with the government’s WTO commitments. This year’s report reflects the progress made in those areas as a result of the two WTO cases the United States won last spring, and China’s initial policy proposals to address those WTO rulings.

While the report shows some progress in the China section, it highlights a growing area of concern in India. India runs subsidy programs very similar to China, including minimum purchase prices and input subsidies. USW and USTR have demonstrated previously that India is well outside of its WTO limits in the level of government subsidies. Those subsidies have spurred excess production and subsequent wheat stocks that, once at a critical mass, India must subsidize to dump onto the world market. USDA projects that Indian wheat ending stocks will exceed 20 million metric tons (MMT) for 2019/20 — a level that historical data shows will likely result in India resuming wheat exports in the near future.

USW’s most recent NTE report can be found online here. It provides an overview of the key issues that USW works on every year and supplies USTR with up-to-date information on ongoing problems in wheat trade. In doing so, it fills a vital role in the enforcement of trade rules, something that U.S. farmers and their customers overseas want to see more than ever.

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By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

While the trade policy headlines from the month of October have mostly been written about a possible “phase one” trade deal between the United States and China, much less has been said about the recently revised and published China Tariff Rate Quota (TRQ) rules for importing wheat and other agricultural products – though their impact could be nearly as significant for the affected commodities.

China’s TRQ rules were expected to be changed because of the World Trade Organization (WTO) ruling last April that found China had not complied with the terms they agreed to upon joining the WTO in 2001. TRQ’s govern the import of specified levels of products at a specific tariff rate that is lower than the global or Most Favored Nation (MFN) rate. Without TRQ, Chinese importers cannot profitably access the world market for wheat, as China’s MFN tariff is 65%. Restricted fill rates on TRQ over the past decades have proven to be the biggest constraint to growing market share for imported wheat in China. Today, imported wheat rarely exceeds 5% of mill use.

Upon accession to the WTO, China established a 9.64 million metric ton (MMT) TRQ for wheat, but that annual TRQ has never fully filled, despite world wheat prices and market conditions conducive to doing just that. When the United States filed the case at the WTO in 2016, they alleged that China had used a series of policies in administering the TRQ that were not “transparent, predictable or fair” and by doing so they, “…limited opportunities for U.S. farmers to export competitively priced, high-quality grains to customers in China.”

That limitation has had effects beyond the impacts on U.S. farmers though, as it also severely limits Chinese millers’ access to high quality wheat grown outside of China. In especially short supply in the domestic market are both soft wheats – often used for pastries and cakes as well at higher protein spring wheats, which are necessary for pizza crusts and hamburger buns.

When the United States won the WTO case, China agreed not to appeal and that they would come into compliance with the ruling by December 2019. That put the case on a relatively fast track to be completed, spanning just under three years since it was filed, much to the joy of U.S. wheat farmers who had long pushed for U.S. government action to force change in the TRQ administration.

U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) has been reviewing the new measures along with the U.S. government and Chinese flour millers. USW Regional Vice President for China and Taiwan, Jeff Coey, has found several of the new rules promising, especially the announcement’s stated goal for both the state and non-state portions of the TRQ to be fully utilized so long as market conditions allow it. Full utilization of both segments of the TRQ hasn’t previously been stated as a goal, leading to significant optimism about access to wheat supplies in 2020. Other positive changes include the allowance for more state-owned entities to apply for TRQ allocations and for non-state-owned entities to apply for the portion of the TRQ that was previously reserved for the state – essentially giving both groups the potential ability to import for the first time.

The TRQ changes and the need for quality wheat supplies may make China a significant wheat importer in 2020. If the changes are in fact implemented, and Chinese millers can respond to market signals, most of the 9.36 MMT TRQ should be used. The net result of that would be China becoming a top world wheat importer, even as they have adequate domestic wheat stocks on hand. From a quality supplier point of view, this opens many opportunities for the United States to provide technical expertise and assistance to our Chinese customers. While allowing those customers access to lower costs and wheat with specialized end-use applications that distinguishes U.S. wheat from domestic supplies.

As with so many issues in trade policy, only time will tell how effective these announced changes will be in allowing Chinese millers to source imported wheat. Both the U.S. government and U.S. Wheat Associates will be closely monitoring the changes to ensure compliance with the WTO ruling, but for now 2020 looks likely to start off on a better foot for U.S. producers and their Chinese customers.

 

By Dalton Henry, USW Vice President of Policy

Representatives from the Taiwan Flour Millers Association (TFMA) are in Washington, D.C. this week to sign letters of intent for the purchase of wheat and other U.S. grown commodities over the next two years. The trip is part of a biennial Agricultural Trade Goodwill Mission that takes TFMA delegates to both D.C. and major wheat-producing states. During their trip, the delegation is also making stops in Oklahoma, South Dakota and Idaho to meet with farmers, grain handlers and state officials before returning to Taiwan.

The Republic of China, known as Taiwan, is consistently a top ten market for U.S. wheat. TFMA imports wheat on behalf of all 20 Taiwanese flour mills and has imported far more wheat from the United States compared to other origins, at an average of 1.07 million metric tons (38.9 million bushels) per year since marketing year 2014/2015.

“We have long had mutually beneficial trade relations with the Taiwan milling and flour products industry,” said Vince Peterson, USW President. “They continue to be a reliable trading partner that fully recognizes the value of purchasing quality U.S. grown wheat”

Members of the Taiwan delegation in Idaho with state commissioner Joe Anderson.

This year, a team of four flour millers is joining the delegation of association representatives.

Significant hard red spring (HRS) imports reflect a need for strong gluten flour for breads, rolls and frozen dough products as well as for blending with hard red winter (HRW) to make traditional Chinese flour foods and noodles. Year-to-date sales to Taiwan in marketing year 2018/19 (June to May) are up 11% from 2017/18. Imports of soft white (SW), including Western White (a blend of SW and up to 20% club), help meet growing demand for cake, cookie and pastry flours.

Follow U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) on Facebook and Twitter for pictures from this weeks activities.