If you think in terms of a year, plant a seed; if in terms of 10 years, plant trees; if in terms of 100 years, teach the people.
Bill Niebur tells his Chinese guests: We will create a revolution in your country. But first, he says, we will be your partner, we will tap into local wisdom and we will lay a solid foundation based on harmony, respect and trust.
Pioneer Hi-Bred has a “long-look philosophy,” Niebur, who runs the seed company’s Chinese operations, explains to Hebei province officials visiting the Johnston headquarters in a historic week of Iowa-China diplomacy. “When we went into China, we realized we were planting trees.”
He expects those roots to transform Chinese agriculture in the next 10 to 15 years. Together, he tells the Chinese, “we are writing the most important story of this century.”
The Chinese officials want to know more. They want to shift the plot to prevent food shortages in the world’s most populous nation.
The story thus far isn’t promising. As the Chinese grow wealthier and more move to cities, they are eating more like Americans. Consumption of meat and dairy has soared.
Despite record corn harvests in recent years, China, the world’s second-largest producer of corn, behind the U.S., can’t keep up with demand. Farmers there produce about 86 bushels per acre, compared with 172 last year in Iowa. Chronic water shortages, less arable land and other constraints will pressure production.
As a result, China has begun buying U.S. corn and is expected to buy much more. By 2022, China is forecast to import six times the amount of corn it does now and become the world’s largest importer of the grain, the U.S. Department of Agriculture said in a report Monday.
That demand could lead to higher food prices for U.S. consumers, economists warn.
But Pioneer bases its business on disproving the theories of 18th-century economist Thomas Malthus, who argued that population gains will eventually outstrip agricultural production.
Niebur believes China can move into the top tier of corn producers by yield, without using more land or water, but by creating “virtual acres” through advanced seed genetics.
Pioneer’s parent, DuPont, showed its commitment to the Chinese market last week by announcing plans for a seed technology center in Beijing, promising the latest breeding methods to develop high-yield corn hybrids.
And China showed that it appreciates Pioneer. At a reception before a state dinner at the Iowa Capitol Wednesday, the future leader of China, Xi Jinping, surprised Paul Schickler, Pioneer’s president. Xi told the small audience that Pioneer seed was planted on 2 million hectares (4.9 million acres).
Later, at the state dinner, Schickler was sitting between two vice ministers when Xi singled out Pioneer as a friendly company. One of the officials said to Schickler: “Wow, that’s impressive.”
The future leader of China had given his approval, which could help Pioneer get in the door with state-owned institutes or other potential partners.
“It validates the strong reputation we have in China, and relationships we’ve built there in the last 10 to 15 years,” Schickler said.
China relationship started 15 years ago
Pioneer opened its first office in China in 1997 and started forming joint ventures and other partnerships shortly after.
In 2004, Pioneer began selling Hybrid XY335, a combination of two inbred lines developed in North America solely for the Chinese market. The hybrid set a national corn yield record in its second year of use.
“The product changed the face of corn growing,” Niebur said.
Pioneer believes that XY335 — and its counterfeit replicas — together make it the most widely planted hybrid in China. The hybrid does so well that some have questioned whether the seed was genetically modified, according to Asian news reports. China does not allow commercial cultivation of GMO corn.
Pioneer sells seed to 8 million Chinese farmers, and Niebur plans to double that. Numbers are hard to come by, but Pioneer estimates it has about 9 percent of the seed corn market in China. That makes it a leader among multinational companies and puts it in the top three to five corn seed companies overall, the company said.
“I can tell you that from my trips in Asia, every Chinese seed company that we have met with benchmarks against Pioneer,” Mark Connelly, an analyst at Credit Agricole Securities, said in a DuPont investor forum in November.
Pioneer now sells 20 hybrids in China, and Niebur expects 10 to 15 will be released in the next year.
Company helps teach improved methods
The company is doing more than providing seed. It’s teaching the people.
Most Chinese farmers still plant by hand, in plots of a half acre to one and a half acres, Niebur said. The uniform size of Pioneer seeds enables farmers to use two-or three-row planters.
Pioneer agronomists have worked with provincial officials to encourage farmers to plant a single seed — instead of planting three corn seeds in a hill, then thinning out all but the strongest plants.
The next wave will include helping farmers use fertilizer, herbicides and irrigation more effectively, Niebur said.
Agriculture has not advanced at the same pace as other industries in China, Niebur said. But that’s changing.
On Feb. 1, the government released “Document No. 1,” recommendations on accelerating agricultural production. The document supports technological innovation, farmer training and education to boost productivity — words that Pioneer finds comforting.
“We see a shift of attitudes and beliefs on what it will take to professionalize and advance agriculture,” Niebur said.
Change means tension, takes time to pay off
But transformation creates turbulence. Niebur quoted Mao Zedong to his Hebei guests: “A revolution is not a dinner party.” In other words, it won’t be enjoyable for everyone.
Members of the delegation shook their heads knowingly.
“Everyone realized the context of that comment,” Niebur said later.
Progress will leave some behind, as it always does. But China, Niebur says, must advance and mechanize to keep up with demand. Its farmers are aging.
But China need not follow Iowa’s example of massive shift to large-scale farming: Pioneer seeds and agronomy training will benefit farmers with an acre or two, he said. “We will see the largest number of smallholders in the world,” he said. “I don’t think they will disappear.”
After a demonstration in a Pioneer greenhouse filled with fast-growing corn, Hebei Gov. Zhang Qingwei presses Niebur. How can we help Pioneer?
Niebur asks that provincial officials continue to allow the company to form more relationships. “Too generic,” Zhang said through a translator.
Niebur gets more specific, with talk of research collaborations, new business ventures, and permission to work on new crops, like oilseeds. They agree to continue the conversation in Hebei, a province that surrounds Beijing.
The irony: Niebur lives in Beijing. He and the governor are practically neighbors, but they have traveled 6,500 miles to meet in Johnston. It’s a start.
Schickler is confident that Pioneer — and Iowa — will have the opportunity to harvest all the goodwill from last week.
“More important than this week is what things look like three years from now,” he said. “That’s when things will really show, ‘Wow, this was a historic event. Look at where we are.’ ”