OPINION  Having returned from a whirlwind seven-day trip to China and Japan, I’m optimistic about the long-term health of U.S. dairy exports despite challenges caused by current trade disputes. With hard work and patience we will continue to grow both volume and value for the U.S. dairy industry. We are on the right track to compete to win.”

The trip was from Aug. 28 to Sept. 3 to China and Japan, intended to build relationships in vital markets for the future of the U.S. dairy industry.

After meeting with U.S. dairy suppliers and customers in China, the reality of why U.S. dairy exports to China have decreased 43 percent during one year was brought home. Exports have been hit by a one-two punch of retaliatory tariffs and the spread of African swine fever. The disease has killed much of China’s pig population, reducing the need for feed that utilized U.S. dairy ingredients.

In that environment the best we can do is look for ways to maintain the relationship in the hope that the trade dispute is settled sooner rather than later. We need to recognize we have no control concerning when or if that will happen.

I met with officials at China’s Ministry of Commerce, the governmental arm overseeing trade issues, and with the China Chamber of Commerce for Import and Export of Foodstuffs, Native Produce and Animal By-Products. It influences more than 6,000 agricultural-member companies, including more than 1,000 in the dairy sector alone.

I didn’t dwell on trade issues. Instead I proposed “win-win” dairy solutions such as utilizing U.S. permeate and whey protein in feed to rebuild the Chinese pig herd decimated by African swine fever. I touted that idea in a keynote speech at the China Dairy Industry Association’s annual meeting. Held in Shijiazhuang, a city of 10 million, the industry meeting was co-sponsored by the U.S. Dairy Export Council. It’s one of three organizations outside China awarded the organization’s International Cooperation Friendship Award.

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Tom Vilsack is the president and CEO of the U.S. Dairy Export Council, which fosters collaborative industry partnerships with processors, trading companies and others to enhance global demand for U.S. dairy products and ingredients. It’s primarily supported by Dairy Management Inc. through the dairy-farmer checkoff. Visit usdec.org for more information.