Farm Horizons, Feb. 2006

Locals visit China dairy operations

By Liz Hellmann
Staff Writer

What recently became a “once-in-a-lifetime experience” for three local residents, also made history in one of the largest nations in the world.

George and Kay Bakeberg of Waverly and Brad Millerbernd of Winsted embarked upon a trip to China from Nov. 11 to 18 as part of the largest state delegation to ever visit China at one time.

“We had a really great time, the group blended really well together,” George said.

“It was a once-in-a-lifetime-opportunity,” Kay added.

The delegation, which was made up of 218 members, was designed to promote trade with China.

There were a number of different delegation groups within the delegation, including education, mining, medical, and information technology.

Minnesota Governor Tim Pawlenty was among the leaders who took part in the delegation.

“He came to the Great Wall of China with us, and was at all the dinners and events,” Millerbernd said.

Even though the Bakebergs and Millerbernd live within 20 miles of each other, they didn’t realize they were all going on the trip until they ended up together in the agricultural delegation group.

Both were interested in learning more about the dairy industry, but from different perspectives.

Millerbernd, who is president of Millerbernd Design and Fabrication, wanted to take a first-hand look at China and its economy.

“The biggest mistake people can make is to pretend like there is nothing going on over in China,” Millerbernd said. “They are moving rapidly and expanding their technology. They are going to be a dominant player in the world economy.”

Millerbernd Design and Fabrication manufactures stainless steel equipment and processing systems used in cheese processing plants, which is how Millerbernd ended up in the agricultural delegation group.

George Bakeberg, who is president of the Minnesota Milk Producers Association, agrees the Chinese economy is booming rapidly.

“They (Chinese) are hoping their technology grows in the next 20 years how ours (United States) has grown the last 100 years,” George said.

To be able to observe what China’s economy is like up close, Millerbernd submitted an application to go on the trip after being presented with the opportunity from the Minnesota Trade Office.

“A few weeks later, we were extended an invitation,” Millerbernd said.

Kurt Markham, who works for the Department of Agriculture, gave George his invitation while he was attending a dairy conference in the cities.

“I said I would come home and ask my wife, and that’s what I did,” George said.

That was in spring, and in November, Kay found herself sitting on a plane with her husband, heading to China as one of only two spouses to make the trip.

“I got the best of both worlds. I got to pick whether to attend events with the delegates or go on tours,” Kay said.

Some of those events included a trip to a Biofuel Symposium in Beijing, a Hormel pork processing plant, and dairy farms in Beijing and Shanghai.

“They had a very successful operation there, selling local products,” Millerbernd said of the Hormel plant.

Millerbernd wanted to explore the possibility of opening a branch of the company in China, and get a better feel for the opportunities to work with Chinese companies.

“We looked at it from all angles,” Millerbernd said.

Unfortunately, the types and sizes of the products Millerbernd makes do not lend themselves well to shipping. There is also low cheese consumption in China, hurting the chances of opening a branch of the company there.

“I think it was a very worthwhile experience. In the short term, it is not going to make any difference to our business, but in the long term, I’m certain it will make a difference and become part of our business model planning in the next 10 to 15 years,” Millerbernd said.

Not only did the group get a first-hand look at the economy, George had the privilege of a personalized look into the dairy industry during a car ride.

The Bakebergs were two of only seven or eight people who were given the opportunity to tour a dairy farm. On the way to the dairy farm, George rode with the manager of the farm, Zhang Shengli.

“It was nice to visit with him, hear his philosophy on the industry,” George said.

In China, 65 percent of milk is produced in family farms. Most of the larger farms are all government-owned.

The farm the Bakebergs visited housed about 1,200 dairy cows.

What George found especially interesting was that there was 12 barns that each housed 100 cows, instead of one, 1,200-cow barn.

“Everything is very labor-intensive there,” George said.

The farm had 110 employees and used a pipeline milking system. The biggest tractor they could get was 30 horsepower.

George asked Shengli what he would think if a couple of big tractors could come in and handle all the fields more quickly and efficiently.

“He said that would be great, but millions of people would be without a job,” George said.

Although the cattle population is about equal between China and the United States, the United States produces about three times as much milk.

“It takes about two and a half cows there (China) to equal one cow here (United States),” Kay said.

Kay and George both agree the reason for the disparity is better quality feed for cows in the United States.

Kay also found it strange that milk was rarely offered during meals, even at the dairy farm.

“We were always offered beer, wine, and juice, but not milk,” Kay said. She was relieved to spy a number of McDonalds and Dairy Queens that served one of her favorite dairy treats, ice cream.

Although, as a nation, cheese consumption is low, and China already imports much of its dairy from New Zealand, Millerbernd and the Bakebergs value what they learned about the industry in China from tours to business lunches.

“They kept us on a very busy schedule there, from morning to night,” Millerbernd said.

But it wasn’t all work and no play. They enjoyed a trip to the Great Wall of China with Gov. Pawlenty, and sightseeing in Tienamen Square and the Forbidden City. Even eating was an adventure.

“A couple people from the delegation were eating scorpion on the stick,” Millerbernd said.

For a more gourmet meal, the group was also invited to a banquet in the Great Hall.

“It’s like going to Washington DC and eating at the capitol,” George said.

All dairy concepts and historical trips aside, the little cultural differences also made the trip unique.

Kay won’t soon forget bartering for merchandise in the markets, and the non-western style bathrooms earning BYOTP signs (Bring Your Own Toilet Paper).

“Would I go back again? Absolutely,” George said.

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