Farmers build relationships on Minnesota mission trip to Vietnam

BREWSTER, Minn. -- A pair of farmers from Brewster and Sioux Valley were among a contingent of Minnesota soybean growers and others to travel to Vietnam earlier this month to learn about how the southeast Asian country uses American-grown soybeans.

BREWSTER, Minn. - A pair of farmers from Brewster and Sioux Valley were among a contingent of Minnesota soybean growers and others to travel to Vietnam earlier this month to learn about how the southeast Asian country uses American-grown soybeans.

Ron Obermoller and Doug Pohlman left a couple of days in advance of the nearly two dozen people taking part in a Minnesota Soybean Growers Association See For Yourself mission trip. Their early arrival in Hanoi allowed the two men to tour the city and countryside by bicycle, stopping at rice paddies and roadside markets and visiting with residents in their homes. “I’d been there five years earlier so I had a clue what we were getting into,” said Obermoller, adding that the concierge from their hotel connected them with farmers. “The whole trip was fun.”

Obermoller, who serves on the MSGA board of directors, said once the rest of the group arrived, they visited soybean crush facilities similar to the Minnesota Soybean Processors plant at Brewster, toured feed processors and soybean crush facilities, visited swine and poultry farms and saw aquaculture ponds and a fish processing facility. The goal of the See For Yourself program is to connect Minnesota soybean farmers with consumers abroad as a way to evaluate the state’s soybean checkoff program.

Pohlman, in his first visit to Vietnam, said he went because he was curious about the country. Having grown up in the era of the U.S. war with Vietnam, he wanted to see the country and learn about its growing trade.

“It’s a big market - it’s very competitive,” Pohlman said. “They say they get about 40 percent of their soybeans from the U.S. and 60 percent from South America. We would like to change that a little bit.”


Meanwhile, Obermoller said his first trip to Vietnam was with a group through the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. He wanted to return to the country to learn more about its use of soybeans.

“We’re competing against South America like anybody else in the world,” Obermoller said. “Vietnam has decided they don’t have the ability to grow their own protein, so that’s where the soybeans come in.

“Their big market is raising poultry and swine,” he said, adding that the profit margin on hogs is the best in the world at more than $70 per head the past couple of years.

During the trip, the contingent touted Minnesota-grown soybeans for their higher levels of amino acids - nutrients that lead to better feed efficiency among swine and poultry - and learned that Vietnam’s Bunge plant likes the soybeans produced in Minnesota because they are cooler in temperature and therefore store better than soybeans shipped from South America.


Growth potential

Pohlman said their group met with an individual who was essentially the agriculture secretary of Vietnam and learned about the growth potential of the country.

“He said they are looking at a 7 percent per year growth rate in their country for the next 10 years,” Pohlman said. “That’s got a lot of interest from other countries. That Asian market is very good - very promising. It looks like it has a lot of potential.”


“A lot of the investment dollars in the world are in Vietnam,” added Obermoller.

While in the country, the group spent time at both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City. Hanoi’s population is approximately 10 million, and Obermoller said it seemed everyone had a connection to farming.

“Almost every family had a rice paddy that they worked,” he said. “The low ground was where the rice paddies were and the high ground was where the houses were. I don’t think any of that had changed over 2000 years.”

While the lack of refrigeration in homes, open air meat markets and the use of bicycles and motorized scooters seemed to show the country in its Third World environment, Obermoller said Vietnam’s feed mills are the newest and best, and technology has seemingly leapfrogged.

“It’s a real contrast when the countryside you don’t think has changed in 1000 years and they have the newest and the best (in technology),” he added.


Aquaculture agriculture

As part of the tour, Obermoller and Pohlman visited aquaculture farms - each about three acres in size and filled with a quarter-million catfish. They also toured a fish processing facility in the Mekong Delta, which employs approximately 3,000 workers on the cutting floor.


The facility processes three million catfish in an eight-hour shift, with a single live fish delivered by boat processed into a frozen catfish fillet within a span of 50 minutes.

The fish are fed a soybean-based diet, with soybean meal making up about 40 percent of their food and fish meal making up 5 percent.

“Fish meal is extremely high priced, so they’d like to get rid of the 5 percent fish meal in the diet,” Obermoller said.

During the group’s visit to a modern swine facility, they learned feed processors are investing in pork production. Obermoller said one company - larger than Cargill - provides feed, veterinary services, marketing and genetics.

“They really want to grow their hog herd, whether through outside investors or local,” Pohlman added.


‘Vietnam is our future’

Pohlman said visiting a communist country, he expected more control. What he found, however, were people who are proud of what they do and they are happy. He also learned of the trust Vietnam’s soybean buyers have in Minnesota’s product.

“It looks like a real growth potential,” he added.

“For me, Vietnam is our future,” Obermoller said, pointing to the young and growing population, the fact that Vietnamese eat more meat than China and that they have a decent education system. “We better be paying more attention to Vietnam than our China markets. I look at Vietnam as being more important to us. It’s an emerging Third World country. The growth there is unlimited for a number of years.

“What they’re doing in Vietnam is going to spread through Cambodia, Thailand, Indonesia…” he added.

The Minnesota group anticipates a visit by a contingent from Vietnam during soybean harvest this fall, Obermoller said, adding that representatives from the country have visited Minnesota farms for the past two or three years.

“A lot of the Asian markets are about relationships,” he said. “They want to know the farmer, they want to know where their crops are coming from.”

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