Buyer Beware: Trade Teams Value U.S. Sorghum Field Education

Just as consumers are eager to educate themselves here in the U.S., so too are consumers of U.S. sorghum from many countries, including China and Mexico. To meet that demand, the Sorghum Checkoff hosts multiple trade teams to show people from throughout the supply chain the ins and outs of U.S. sorghum production.

Article by Shelee Padgett

Buyer beware. The caveat emptor principle suggests a buyer must do the necessary due diligence before making a purchase to ensure the good the buyer is purchasing meets quality and suitability needs. This cautionary advice is often brought up in real estate, but international grain trade is no different.

Shipping farm commodities across U.S. borders is increasingly important, and farmers are taking active steps to demonstrate the quality of their product and sell it. Sometimes the best global business deals start when riding in the tractor cab on U.S. soil.

These relationships with international buyers are vital, especially in the small world of agriculture. Just like domestic consumers who increasingly desire to see how their food is made and where it is grown, our international buyers want to see the quality of the product they are purchasing long before it makes it into their hands.

Through partnerships with the U.S. Grains Council and state checkoff boards, the United Sorghum Checkoff Program connects buyers with sorghum growers throughout the Sorghum Belt through numerous trade missions during the sorghum growing season. These trade missions are just one of the tools the industry uses to build upon existing markets while seeking new demand opportunities as they arise.

Sorghum farmers hosted five trade teams from all over the world during the 2018 growing season, including buyers from China, Mexico, Colombia, Peru and Morocco. During farm tours, sorghum buyers focused on learning about U.S. sorghum production, marketing and export logistics.

Reading about U.S. sorghum or seeing sorghum in a vessel is one thing, but experiencing it on a farm with the farmer takes that understanding to a new level.

“It is important to attend and visit with farmers,” said Angela Maria Ayora, a general manager with a livestock company in Colombia who recently participated in a sorghum direct sales team mission to the Texas Panhandle. “To also see the crops up close, see the quality we are consuming and be able to listen to the farmers’ experiences, it is very valuable.”

As is in the U.S., most of the population abroad is often a generation—or more—removed from farming. Direct sales missions give buyers a snapshot of how sorghum is produced and provide an opportunity to connect and establish relationships with farmers.

“Many times we only know the final process, and we do not know everything the production implies,” Ayora said. “The tours clarify our doubts as buyers and show us everything that is behind each grain of sorghum we consume.”

“I had no idea I would be so passionate about food-grade sorghum. That’s what I love,” he said. “Ethanol. It has its place. All the things in the sorghum world have their place, but for me it’s food-grade.”

Adam Baldwin farms sorghum, corn, wheat and soybeans alongside his family on a diversified operation located outside of McPherson, Kansas. Not only has he traveled internationally on behalf of the sorghum industry on trade missions, but he has also hosted a number of sorghum buying teams on his family’s farm and said creating buyer trust is essential.

“It is important for buyers to see where their purchases come from,” he said, “to build confidence and hopefully create a preference for our product.”

With a sorghum export value of up to $200 million to the state of Kansas in 2018, Baldwin stresses the importance of being an advocate for exports, particularly at home. He also emphasizes to buyers his operation is a family farm for multiple reasons.

“We are invested in producing a quality product with a long-term vision,” Baldwin said. “Buyers always enjoy going to see sorghum in the field, and being able to show a good field with excellent weed control and yield potential is a good feeling.”

“My wife and I also think it’s important to show our kids there is a world beyond this farm and this country, and hosting trade teams, we feel, is an excellent way to do that,” Baldwin said. “It also helps our children understand what we are doing on our farm is not just growing a crop and hauling it to the elevator, but we are growing a crop to sell to the world. We help accomplish this by hosting buying teams on our farm.”

While buyer confidence is generated through the farmer seeing the quality of the crop, the purchase is typically made through regional cooperatives or a multi-national company. During the trade team visits, the Sorghum Checkoff provides opportunities for buyers to meet with farmers and merchandisers. In fact, Joe Kelley, Ag Export Manager at United Agricultural Cooperative, Inc., hosts 3-4 buying trade teams a year and has participated in several out-bound trade missions, as well.

“I met one of our trading partners from Monterrey, Mexico, through the course of events sponsored by Texas Sorghum and the Sorghum Checkoff,” Kelley said. “Our paths kept crossing, and through time we developed a relationship. We worked to educate him on how our farmers grow the crop, and now we deliver a superior quality product and service to them.”

Mexico is a significant market for United Ag located in El Campo, Texas, but it is not the only market United Ag can service because of its port facility.

“We hosted a small buying team from the Asia market prior to the growing season and reconnected with them on a sorghum sponsored mission,” Kelley said. “They have since purchased and are happy with the consistency and quality of our product.”

Whether U.S. sorghum farmers are hosting international buyers or consumer influencers, maintaining an open line of communication allows better understanding of U.S. sorghum production, increases buyer trust and creates future sorghum sales.