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A golden harvest near Oakesdale.
Photo by Teresa Hodges






April 2018
By Michelle Hennings, WAWG Executive Director

I’ve been working with the Washington Association of Wheat Growers (WAWG) for 14 years now, and I’ve seen the importance of not only educating consumers and policymakers, but our own industry as well. For many growers, wheat’s story ends at the local elevator, but there’s a much larger picture that all farmers should be aware of. I see a disconnect between the people who are growing wheat and the people and countries who are buying and using it, especially those farmers who aren’t actively engaged in our wheat organizations. In today’s uncertain climate of trade disputes and attacks on agriculture, I think it is more important than ever to appreciate the whole story, from field to flour as it were.

In January, I was given that opportunity by the Washington Grain Commission (WGC) and invited on a trip to the Philippines and Japan. Advocacy is the foundation of WAWG, so I was excited to see firsthand how our customers view the U.S. wheat industry and bring that information back to our growers and policymakers. I was also excited to experience the work U.S. Wheat Associates (USW) does and see how the WGC puts growers’ assessments to use promoting and supporting our industry.

On the trip, I was joined by growers and industry leaders from Washington (Damon Filan, Mike Miller and Glen Squires); Oregon (Darren Padget and Walter Powell); Idaho (Bill Flory); and Montana (Collin Watters). For the past few years, we’ve been building a solid coalition between the industry groups of the Pacific Northwest, so it was rewarding to share this experience with them. It gave us a chance to network and strengthen those relationships. Trade deeply impacts the whole region, so I firmly believe we have a better chance of not only surviving these uncertain times, but prospering as well, if we are all working towards common goals.

As the departure date grew nearer, it was almost unbelievable that I was actually going. People would ask if I was excited, and I would think to myself that I’ve been across the U.S. advocating for wheat farmers, but it didn’t feel real that I would be leaving in a week to go overseas. I’ve never had this sort of opportunity—believe me, it is “a once in a lifetime opportunity”—and I kept telling myself to make sure and seize every moment. The length of the flights made me nervous; I’ve flown the six hours to Washington, D.C., many times, but this was going to be a 16-hour flight to Manila with a stop in Japan. WOW! I kept telling myself that I could do this.

Date: Jan. 17, 2018
Subject: Hello, Manila

We arrived in Manila in the evening. It was a shock going from frozen Eastern Washington to the humidity of the Philippines. Once we were shuttled to our hotel and had a chance to settle in, I was able to look over the extensive schedule for our visit. I was nervous and excited, but determined to represent our industry well. I knew I had to give an introduction of myself and what I do in our meetings, so I kept reminding myself to thank our hosts and tell them how honored I was to be in their country and to be able to partner with them. The next morning, we met with Joe Sowers, USW regional vice president for Philippines and Korea; Matt Weimar, USW regional vice president for South Asia; and Gerry Mendoza, baking consultant from USW’s Manila office, for a briefing on the Philippines in regards to economic growth, wheat consumption and U.S. wheat sales.

I learned that the population in South Asia is projected to hit 800 million by 2050, and that the growth rate in the Philippines is at 1.69 percent. That’s higher than other Pacific Rim countries such as Indonesia, Vietnam, Thailand, Japan, Malaysia and South Korea. The median age for the Philippines is 23.4, which is young compared to Japan, which is at 46.9. The U.S. has a commanding market share of Filipino milling wheat imports at 92 percent. Canada is at 7 percent and Australia is at 1 percent. The Philippines is the No. 1 market for U.S. white wheat.

In all our meetings in Manila, we took great care to stress the excellent quality of U.S. wheat and updated our customers on the upcoming growing season, which looks positive so far this year for the Pacific Northwest.

Date: Jan. 18, 2018
Subject: Meetings with the General Milling Corporation and PILMICO

Our first customer meeting of the trip was with the General Milling Corporation to network and to make sure they are happy with our wheat and to see if there was anything we could do to better serve them. We gave them an update on our crop conditions—excellent!—and listened to a company executive give details on their future expansion plans. During this meeting, we were able to taste a few of their desert products, which were good, but very dense and rich. I was only able to take a few bites; they give sweet a whole new meaning. The company is very proud of their products, which showcase what good quality wheat will accomplish for end users. After exchanging business cards, we were off to a lunch meeting with PILMICO Foods Corporation, one of the largest mills in Manila.

When we walked into the meeting, I recognized two of the executives from a trade team that recently came through Washington state. In my head, I immediately connected that visit with my visit and realized how vital this networking is. By taking these trips to each other’s country, we are able to develop a relationship that allows us to communicate openly and honestly. This is key to making sure our product (wheat) is servicing them efficiently and allows them to fully utilize U.S. wheat’s quality and specifications (such as protein, falling numbers, etc.) to the best of their ability.

Date: Jan. 18, 2018
Subject: Celebrating the Filipino-Chinese Bakery Association’s 52nd anniversary

Our next meeting was only two miles away, but took 2.5 hours to get to due to traffic. We were visiting the Filipino-Chinese Bakery Association’s Research and Training Institute. We met with the current president and took a tour of the facility where we observed the amazing equipment they used in their research. Many baking classes are held here, and USW funds part of the school. We were able to watch the association induct new directors and celebrate their 52nd anniversary. The celebration lasted five hours, and we were treated as VIPs. We were served a traditional, six-course meal with entertainment from grade-school dance classes. USW’s Mike Miller and Joe Sowers were asked to give speeches. I had the feeling the association was exceptionally happy that we were there to celebrate with them, and I felt their respect for and dedication to the U.S. wheat industry.

Date: Jan. 19, 2018
Subject: Meeting at San Miguel Mills

The next day we were off to visit San Miguel Mills, the largest mill in the Philippines. We traveled by car for three hours through the outskirts of Manila and through small towns. During the drive, I was amazed at how the landscape changed from prosperous big city to small, impoverished communities. There were small, mom-and-pop businesses everywhere, and on every other block was a small bakery. There were many peddlers, and transportation was mostly by bike and jitney (rigs leftover from WWII that had been converted to jitney buses).

We also drove by an active volcano, and I learned we were in the “Pacific Rim of Fire.” I don’t recall this ever being mentioned prior to the trip…

Arriving at San Miguel, we were met by security as we drove in. We were right on the bay where ships come in and deliver our wheat! We were met by their CEO with hospitality and kindness. During our meeting, we were given a presentation on the mill, which we learned was the No. 1 flour mill in the Philippines. The company has many other ventures, such as beer, packaging, food and petrol; the flour mill is only a small part of their business. The company is working on an expansion that will double their production and should be completed within a year. We were able to take a tour of the property, control room and mill. This was an amazing experience for me to see how a large mill is run and the process that turns grain into flour and the packaging and transporting of that flour.

It was time to say goodbye to our friends from the Philippines. We ended our Manila experience with a millers reception with top executives from PAFMIL (the Philippines Association of Flour Millers) and CHAMPFLOUR (the Chamber of Philippines Flour Mills). Many thanks to Joe Sowers and his team for organizing our itinerary and all the work they do to keep our relationship with our No. 1 customer thriving.

Date: Jan. 20, 2018
Subject: Goodbye, Manila. Hello, Japan

We arrived in Tokyo after a six-hour flight from Manila where we met Glen Squires and Damon Filan from the Washington Grain Commission, and Walter Powell from the Oregon Wheat Growers League, who had been in China. After checking into our hotel—the service from the employees was exceptional, and I learned it is against their culture to tip—we hit the ground running with an evening dinner meeting and briefing with Wataru “Charlie” Utsunomiya, USW’s country director for Japan.

On our way to the restaurant, we passed many businesses displaying their bakery products. The stores in Japan take great pride in their displays, and it seemed presentation was key for them.

During this dinner is when we first heard that there was a great deal of concern from the Japanese government about the U.S. withdrawal from the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade agreement. We were aware this could be a big part of our conversations in the days to come, but the level of concern from the Japanese surprised me. We strategized on what our message would be during the upcoming meetings. I quickly came to the realization that I was here for a historical moment where I would get to experience how USW handles a tough decision that was made above and beyond our farmers’ control.

Date: Jan. 21, 2018
Subject: A little sight seeing!

The day after we arrived, we had some extra time while waiting for the rest of our team to fly in. We were going to be joined by Vince Peterson, USW president, and Mark Fowler, vice president of overseas operations for USW. I was able to take in some of the Japanese culture for a couple hours as I visited the Great Buddha of Kamakura, Tokyo Bay, and Emperor’s Palace.

Later that evening, I was invited to an exclusive dinner with USW and Nisshan Flour Milling Company, which is Japan’s largest manufacturer of wheat flour. This was my first meeting experience in Tokyo, and I was nervous because I didn’t know their language. When I walked into the small room, I recognized one of the gentlemen because he had been to Washington on a trade team. This really eased my nerves. We were greeted and immediately got to business. They presented information showing the impact of the United States’ withdrawal from TPP on the U.S. wheat industry. It was shocking to see what this might do to our farmers, and my concern immediately elevated. All I could think was how we were we going to fix this. We must fix this. To top off the conversation, we were told the Japanese government is not interested in bilateral agreements, and they will have no option but to buy our competitors’ wheat at a lower price.

After an hour of discussion, I finally had my first traditional Japanese meal. Conversation had lightened, and there was a mutual understanding between us that we were in predicament, and we now needed to work harder than ever to find a solution with Japan and our government to save our market.

Date: Jan. 22, 2018
Subject: Meeting with MAFF

The following day our schedule had changed. We were to meet with the U.S. Embassy, but due to the U.S. government shutdown, the embassy was closed. Instead, we started our day off with a business meeting with Japan’s Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries’ (MAFF) Grain and Trade Operations Division. We discussed crop conditions and their new SBS Category 3 System, which will provide their millers with flexibility in price, volume and timing when making purchases. We then quickly moved into conversations on TPP.

The message we received was they will be moving forward with the TPP-11 agreement, which is a trade agreement between the remaining 11 TPP countries (that agreement was formally signed at the beginning of March). They urged us to inform our government that we need to sign back on to TPP, otherwise U.S. wheat will be at a huge disadvantage due to tariffs. We responded that we understood their concerns, and we would do our best to convince and educate our legislators and the Trump Administration. We ended our meeting by saying how we measure our relationship with Japan by generations and not by election cycles. We have been trading with Japan since the 1950s.

Date: Jan. 23, 2018
Subject: Meeting with Showa Sangyo

This was a very good meeting. Showa Sangyo is a food manufacturer that handles the largest volume of grains in Japan, making a wide variety of products from wheat, soybeans, canola, corn, etc. They buy grains overseas and store them in their own silos. They are a “Grain Solution Company” that uses synergy benefits in every process, from raw material procurement to production, research and development, sales, etc. We exchanged business cards and did introductions. They presented their corporate profile, which included an outline of businesses they own including flour milling, vegetable oils, starches and sweeteners, household foods, animal feed, warehousing, real estate and other businesses.

In their flour milling division, they produce flours for a wide array of uses, including breads, cakes and noodles, as well as premixes for consumer convenience. They have seven flour milling plants. We also were able to visit their research and development facility, which opened in 2016. It includes technology research aimed at improving the quality of wheat flour, as well as developing and providing technical support for wheat flour and premix products tailored to consumers’ needs. The presentation was very interesting and showed how technologically advanced they are in developing their system and products.

We also had a discussion about different varieties of wheat, and how we can provide the right varieties for the blends they produce. We discussed communication and how to provide notice on new varieties. The tone of the meeting was very positive, and our discussions were informative and productive. Attending this meeting underscored the importance of nurturing and maintaining relationships with our buyers. They trusted the information we were providing thanks to the groundwork done by our wheat industry leaders who have worked to make our system as transparent as possible.

While in Tokyo, we also met with Nisshin, Nippon Flour Mills Company and OMIC. We ended our trip with the Japan Flour Millers Association’s 70th anniversary celebration. USW and state gifts were presented to the association, and there was a reception where we were able to network with members and continue developing relationships.

Subject: Thoughts on the trip

Once I got home and recovered from the jetlag, I was able to reflect on the trip and the impressions it made on me. The Philippines and Japan are two very different and unique countries and learning not only about their culture but their use of and value for our wheat was eye-opening. Participating in this trip was valuable for what I do for the wheat growers as their executive director because I was able to talk face-to-face with our customers and hear their concerns and what they needed from us.

A week after we returned from Japan, I got on another plane headed to Washington, D.C., where we met with our federal delegation, ag committee staff and a white house agricultural advisor. I was able to use my experiences from the trip to give real examples and tell wheat’s story. I relayed the urgency our customers expressed about the U.S. rejoining TPP and used my experiences to advocate for more funding for the Market Access Program and the Foreign Market Development program, two programs USW relies on to fund their activities. Having this experience to draw on was a useful tool, and I firmly believe it made our message more heartfelt and true.

Sometimes there’s a perception that these trade visits are all fun and no work, but I’m here to tell you, every second of our day was packed with meetings. It was hectic, but I was reassured to see how efficiently USW works on behalf of growers.

I want to thank the WGC and USW for allowing me to go on this trip. It gives me the knowledge and experience to excel at my job. This once-in-a-lifetime experience will help me tell wheat’s story as it moves from the fields of Eastern Washington to flour mills an ocean away.