Minnesota businesswoman building Southeast Asian markets for U.S. ag productsGARY, Minn. — On a recent July morning, Jade In walks through a soybean field near Gary, Minn., a farm town of about 200. She seems at home in this quiet, well-off-the-beaten-track field.
By: Jonathan Knutson, Agweek
GARY, Minn. — On a recent July morning, Jade In walks through a soybean field near Gary, Minn., a farm town of about 200. She seems at home in this quiet, well-off-the-beaten-track field.
She expected to be in Seoul, South Korea, the nation’s capital and a bustling city of more than 10 million people, by the end of the next day.
In says she’s at home there, too.
“They’re both part of what I do,” she says.
In, a native of Korea, is the owner and president of Circle C. Seeds in Gary. The fast-growing company processes and sells nongenetically modified and organic soybeans, as well as several other crops, to food companies, primarily in Japan and Korea.
She estimates that about 90 percent of the company’s product is exported.
Among the soy products in which Circle C. Seeds is involved: tofu, natto (fermented soybean), miso (a fermented soybean paste) and bean sprouts.
Circle C. Seeds is the only U.S. company that directly markets identify-preserved soybeans rather than using brokers or processors as middleman, according to information from the Gary company.
In regularly is in contact with customers in Southeast Asia by phone or electronically.
Because of the time difference, she typically communicates with Asian customers during the night — their day — when she’s in Minnesota.
“I work in the day. I work in the night. I don’t sleep,” she says with a smile.
Later, she allows that she does find time to sleep, although not as often as she might like. The business is her priority.
“This is so important to me. I want it to be successful and grow,” she says.
In has worked with the North Dakota Trade Office and knows Mark Johnson, its director of international management.
“She’s a very progressive, hardworking lady,” Johnson says.
In has provided export expertise and assistance to several companies that belong to his organization, he says.
in my heart’
In was born in Korea, where her family owned a farm called “Rice Parries.”
As a girl, she notes, she ate soy products, which are widely consumed in Southeast Asia.
She came to the United States and studied science. Her business card identifies her as a “biochemist.”
After school, she got a job with Ecolab — a huge company involved in cleaning, sanitizing, food safety and infection prevention products and services — in St. Paul.
Working for Ecolab, she began doing business with Circle C. Seeds in 1997.
The Gary company was founded in 1986 by Keith Chisholm as a way to market and process his own seed. The company later expanded to process and package birdseed and corn for the bird food industry and then into buying and processing edible beans, according to information from Circle C Seeds.
In 2009, In bought the business.
“Many farmers are asking me why I’m in this business,” she says.
Her answer: “Farming was in my heart.”
She says she’s been accepted in the community.
“Everyone has been very nice,” she says, adding that “they know I want to develop things and make them better.
Seeds and sales
In serves in many roles. In addition to managing the company and marketing soybeans, she’s working to develop Circle C. Seed’s own varieties of soybeans and other crops.
The soybean varieties being tested are grown on a five-acre plot on which she’s carrying a $500,000 insurance policy.
The test plot is a sort of refuge for In.
“When I have stress, I come here. It is so peaceful,” she says as she shows the plot to a visitor.
Seeds grown by Circle C. Seeds are sold to growers, who sell back their crops to the Gary company, which, in turn, exports them to foreign markets.
Growers must meet Circle C. Seed’s criteria.
Circle C. Seeds pays a premium for the crops it buys, but always is looking for more farmers to raise non-GM crops, In says.
Most U.S. farmers prefer GM soybeans because the genetically modified beans require less weed management, among other advantages.
GM soybeans accounted for about 92 percent of U.S. bean acreage in 2008, according to a study by the Council for Agricultural Research and Technology.
World demand for non-GM soybeans is growing, creating more opportunities for both Circle C. Seeds and U.S. farmers willing to grow soybeans that haven’t been genetically modified, In says.
Since In bought the business, Circle C. Seeds had added a new chemical facility and more bins.
Employment has increased from two to eight in Gary. The company has three other employees, one in Denver and two in Korea.
To ensure a diverse supply of soybeans, Circle C. Seeds works with farmers in the United States, Canada, Brazil and the Ukraine.
Transporting soybeans from the Ukraine to Japan and Korea costs about one-third as much as sending them from the United States to Southeast Asia, she estimates.
In wants to expand sales into Vietnam, Indonesia, Singapore and China.
She plans to visit those countries later year on a trade mission with the North Dakota Trade Office.
For American soybean farmers, China is an increasingly important export market.
Before 1995, China was a net exporter of soybeans. Now, the country accounts for more than half of world soybean exports, which the Chinese feed to hogs.
But for Circle C. Seeds, “China is my competitor,” In says.
Even though China is a net importer of soybeans, some Chinese soybeans continue to be exported to other Southeast Asian countries targeted by Circle C. Seeds.
But In thinks China could become a market for her company, given its ongoing effort to improve the quality of its people’s diets.
Chinese meat consumption per capita is less than half of American meat consumption per capita, promising further increases in Chinese consumption of U.S. soybeans.
South Korea, with a population of about 49 million, is one of the world’s biggest economic successes in the past decade.
Its gross domestic product has doubled since 1998, and its economy is the world’s 12th or 15th largest, depending on which measuring system is used.
The economic growth has increased South Korean demand for U.S. products, including agricultural ones. South Korea imported $5.3 billion of U.S. ag products last year, despite what the U.S. Department of Agriculture calls “generally high” barriers to trade.
South Korea will become an even bigger export market, both for Circle C. Seeds and U.S. ag in general, when and if the U.S.-Korean Free Trade Agreement is approved.
The U.S and the Republic of Korea, the official name for South Korea, signed the agreement on June 30, 2007. The long-delayed agreement is inching its way toward congressional approval.
If approved, the agreement would be the “United States’ most commercially significant free trade agreement in more than 16 years,” according to the Office of the U.S. Trade Representative’s website.
For agricultural products, the agreement would immediately eliminate or phase out tariffs and quotas on a broad range of goods, the website says.
One sign of how important South Korea can be to the region’s economy: The North Dakota Trade Office has a manager of business development for Korea.
Johnson says In has a number of contacts in Korea that will help Circle C. Seeds’ sales there grow once the agreement is in place.
In, for her part, says she’s determined that the business will continue to grow.
“It will take a lot of work, a lot of time. But this is what I want,” she says.