Chinese crusher positions itself on the new Silk Road

The Chinese government would like the historic Silk Road to be prominent once again, and U.S. soybeans could play an important role.


Shaanxi Shiyang Group established its soybean crushing business in Xi'an, a city far from the Chinese coasts and other competitors. Preferring to rely on a strong transportation network that includes roads, river and rail the company believes it will be best for their business to be near their customers.

Sound familiar? It did to Governor Kim Reynolds and other members of an Iowa Soybean Association (ISA) trade mission last week as they visited the company.

"We have a lot in common," Reynolds told the CEO while pointing to the state of Iowa on a map on the back of an ISA business card. "We are in the center of the country far from the coasts too."

Chang Qingshan, CEO of the Shaanxi Shiyang Group, hopes the strategic position will capitalize on the reemergence of the Silk Road.

The Silk Road was an ancient trade route between China and the West during the Roman Empire. It’s how silk from the orients make it to Europe and how China received western goods in return.

China President Xi Jinping announced in 2013 a new $900 billion trade corridor would reopen channels between China and Central Asia, the Middle East and Europe. The new Silk Road will be on land and sea with experts saying it will be a way for China to continue to boost global trade.

"They don’t have as much competition in the central part of China. If you look at the re-establishment of the silk road going north and west out of China there’s a lot of advantages logistically," Kirk Leeds, ISA CEO, said after touring Shaanxi Shiyang Group's facility.


Shiyang Group was first established in 1992 and transformed into a joint stock limited company in 1999. The Group focuses mainly on farming, breeding and processing but it also has integrated into other areas like the sale of soybean cooking oil. The CEO told the ISA delegation and Governor Reynolds that 35 percent of the beans they crush is from the United States.

"They told us that 35 percent of their soybeans come from the U.S., but that leaves 65 percent that didn’t," Leeds said. "You have to listen to customers, but at the end of the day when you look at the total value of soybeans, consistency, on-time delivery and financing, they know there is an advantage in buying from the U.S."

Qingshan told the Iowa delegation he continues to be concerned with foreign material in shipments coming from the U.S., but as the Iowa group drilled into the numbers, they found the percentage was below the allowable rate for the beans they had purchased.

Currently, one out of every four rows of soybeans are exported to China. The country is by far the largest soybean importer projected at 83 million metric tons, or a little more than 3 billion bushels.

Jeff Jorgenson, an ISA director from Sidney, and other U.S. farmers would like that number to increase as large surpluses drag commodity prices down.

“There’s no better opportunity to sell soybeans than right now," Jorgenson said. "There is affordability, and we have plenty of supply, so obviously we see that in the markets. There is no better opportunity than having the folks we have in China with  Ambassador Branstad, with the United States Soybean Export Council and our Governor that we shouldn’t be able to make strides in moving more soybeans to China.”


U.S. Ambassador Branstad still championing for Iowa agriculture

United States Ambassador Terry Branstad received a standing ovation from Iowa's agricultural groups as he entered a meeting room at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing Tuesday.

It was the first event in a historic week of meetings during the all-Iowa agriculture trade mission: one that marks the first time all of the state’s commodity groups have traveled overseas together. The purpose of the trip is to enhance relationships and create new ones between the people of China and Iowa farmers, agricultural groups and elected leaders.


"Welcome to the American Embassy. We are excited to have you here," Branstad told the farmers and agriculture representatives at the start of the meeting.

He said that it had been a busy three weeks in his new position with deep dives into a wide range of information relating to China. Branstad was flanked by the heads of the major departments at the Embassy including Defense, public affairs, agriculture affairs, commercial affairs and political affairs.

While his position as Ambassador offers new opportunities, Branstad won't forget the tactics that made him successful and led to being the nation’s longest-serving governor. He plans to continue the Iowa tradition of visiting every county in the state annually by visiting all of China's regions while conducting meetings with high-ranking government officials.

Governor Reynolds, the head of the all-Iowa agriculture trade mission, thanked the Ambassador for the historic meeting.

"Relationships are especially important in China, and we are fortunate that Governor Branstad welcomed a then-local agricultural official from China over 30 years ago into Iowa named Xi Jinping who is now the nation's president," Reynolds said earlier in the week during tours in Shanghai and Xi'an.

Those relationships have now been enriched and extended with Branstad's new role as U.S. Ambassador.

"It doesn't escape Ambassador Branstad of how important it is that all of the Iowa agriculture groups are here in China," Rolland Schnell, president of the Iowa Soybean Association, said. "We are here as one unit and Branstad recognizes how important that is to Iowa’s economy."

The delegation hopes to further solidify with the leaders of China that we are partners in meeting mutual goals in food security, safety and sustainability.

Department heads at the Embassy gave the agriculture leaders and farmers a snapshot of issues they are working on in China. Several issues discussed were:

  1. China's investment in the United States has now surpassed U.S. investment in China.
  2. Food consumption in China is expected to grow 25 percent from 2015 to 2020.
  3. China doesn't want to be reliant on any one country for goods, but U.S. soybeans are an exception.
  4. The U.S. has over $450 billion in investments in China.
  5. China is pursuing an initiative to increase manufacturing of its own agricultural machinery.
  6. A top priority in China is to be more environmentally friendly.

One question from the Iowa delegation pertained to trade and what some would consider political instability in Washington, D.C. Ambassador Branstad assured the group that trade between the U.S. and China would continue to grow.

"We were assured that agricultural trade is always separate from those other issues," Schnell said. "They need us, they want us, and we don’t need to worry about issues that may come up politically affecting our trade.”

That was good news for all members of the Iowa delegation; especially for those members growing and representing soybeans. China is by far the largest soybean importer in the world and is projected at 83 million metric tons, or a little more than 3 billion bushels. The U.S. markets nearly 1.1 billion bushels annually.

Branstad told the group that during meetings with President Trump last week in Washington, D.C. he presented a plan to bring top business leaders to China to discuss trade barriers and possibly sign contracts.

Soybeans, of which Iowa often leads the nation in production of, are a primary feed ingredient for pigs. China, which wasn’t in the market for soybeans 15 years ago, currently accounts for 60 percent of global soybean imports – and growing. One of every four rows of soybeans grown in Iowa is destined for China.

It is apparent that Branstad still intends to champion Iowa agriculture in his new position, telling the leaders gathered that he hopes to get more U.S. products into the embassy and China.

"I met with Tom Vilsack (currently president and CEO of the US Dairy Export Council) to talk about the vague rules concerning dairy imports into China. The milk we drink in the Embassy is from Australia," He said. "I'd like to see it come from the U.S."

Schnell was honored to have the opportunity to visit with Ambassador Branstad in his new role in China.

“It is overwhelming when you step back and think about it,” Schnell said about meeting with a U.S. Ambassador in China. “Most farmers don’t get an opportunity to do this; to be there and see all the things that are going on at the ground level, all the work that is being done to support agriculture. I don’t think the general farming public realizes what is involved and what it takes to make the excellent trade programs we have and how they translate into dollars in farmers’ pockets."

Global aquaculture transformed thanks to investment by the Iowa Soybean Association

Two thousand years of aquaculture in China was revolutionized by one simplistic system developed by the U.S. soybean industry and supported with an investment by Iowa soybean farmers.

That’s the takeaway that soybean leaders celebrated while visiting the first Intensive Pond Aquaculture (IPA) farm in China as participants in an all-Iowa ag trade mission July 19-28.


Without a checkoff investment by the Iowa Soybean Association (ISA), that success may never have been realized, said ISA Director Jeff Jorgenson.

"With 40 percent of China imports coming from the U.S. the IPA system is going to enhance fish production into a higher inclusion of soybean meal in fish diets," said Jorgenson, an ISA director and soybean farmer from Sidney and member of the delegation visiting China. "The investment by soy checkoff dollars again will turn into more of Iowa soybeans being utilized around the world."

Two thousand years of aquaculture in China was revolutionized by one simplistic system. That is the takeaway that soybean leaders celebrated while visiting the first Intensive pond aquaculture (IPA) farm in China located outside of Shanghai.

China has practiced aquaculture for more than 2,000 years. But it wasn’t until 2013 that aquaculture was paired with IPA technologies to create a system that produced healthier fish and uses fewer resources while being fed sustainable soy grown in the United States and other countries.

The ISA in partnership with the U.S. soybean industry funded research to develop the IPA system, which has been provided to China in a technology transfer. The IPA system has been proven to triple the yield of farmed fish in existing Chinese ponds while greatly reducing the environmental impact.

"Iowa soybean farmers were the first to sponsor this technology. We are very appreciative for their generosity and support," said Jim Zhang, United States Soybean Export Council (USSEC) program manager for aquaculture in China.

IPA technology requires minimal modification to existing ponds and creates a zero water discharge system that increases yield with no negative impacts on the environment.

Water is diverted around the pond to keep it mixed. Fish are housed in concrete pens that have screens on the front and back. The circulating water creates a current that mimics the natural habitat of the fish while also removing waste manure. Other species of fish are contained in the ponds outside of the pens to feed off the nutrients.

The IPA technology also allows China’s limited water resources to be conserved and recycled. Excess waste can also be removed and used as fertilizer or biofuels.

"In 2013 when the project started there were only three cells. Now there are over 3,000 cells in China with the total construction investment, not mentioning the operational investment, is worth around $44 million," Zhang said.

The sky could be the limit for the new technology. Zhang believes the number of fish raised using the IPA system could double in the next five years.

"This technology helps to break all the bottlenecks that face China's aquaculture," he said. "Bottlenecks like labor, water, environmental and food safety."

Governor Kim Reynolds, who is leading the delegation, toured the site and fed some of the thousands of carp species raised on the farm.

"I'm extremely proud of the ISA to think that they were the original investor in this IPA. It is a win-win. Our farmers benefit from the increased use of soy, and these farms are reducing costs and expanding,

"It is a great example of what we want to see happen on the trade missions that we are a part of,” Reynolds added.

Karey Claghorn, Chief Operating Officer for the ISA, also toured the aquaculture farm powered by U.S. soybean meal.

"IPA has revolutionized the industry. It changed the way they could look at their in-pond systems," she said. "It allows them to improve water quality and environmental footprint. It was an exciting investment for us as it has worked out."

Sergeant At Arms

If you take the time, you will find that you can meet the most interesting people. Recently I made a stop at the Freedom Rock north of Greenfield, Iowa to see the most recent version. The Freedom Rock was started in 1999 to honor the men and women that have served our country. Each year, Ray "Bubba" Sorensen II, paints a new mural on the rock prior to Memorial Day.

John Porter talks to a visitor at the Freedom Rock near Greenfield.

John Porter talks to a visitor at the Freedom Rock near Greenfield.

As I pulled up this year I found  John Porter raising the Stars and Bars over the memorial. Porter, a three-year veteran of the air force with a stop in Vietnam, was quick to fill me in on the history of the rock and tell his story about working with Sorensen over the years. Porter described himself as the sergeant at arms for the memorial and it is a job that he takes very serious.

"I was cuffed and stuffed several years ago," Porter said with a smile. 

He said the one and only time someone messed with the memorial ended in Porter punching him in the face. Porter said he found out someone painted graffiti and anti-flag rhetoric on one of the early versions of the rock. When he found out the identity of the man that did it he wanted to have a friendly conversation with him. One thing led to another and Porter found himself in jail.

"It's okay. The local veterans groups paid for my bail and court costs," he said still smiling.

Over the years nearly 80 veterans have reportedly had their ashes mixed in the paint and added to the memorial. Making Porter's job of keeping an eye on the memorial all that more important. I left him as he talked with his wife and others that were visiting the Freedom Rock. A great guy that has dedicated his life to his country.

To read more about the Freedom Rock follow this link:


Smokey D's: Putting Iowa BBQ on the Map

By Joseph L. Murphy

Any way you slice it, American barbecue is one of the most debated food topics. Some will claim Kansas City or Memphis barbecue is the best. And states like Alabama, Texas and South Carolina always find their way on top 10 lists. But more people are adding Iowa to those lists. Or at least they will if Darren Warth gets his way.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Sherry and Darren Earth are the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, King of the Smoker and the Houston Livestock World Championship.

Warth, owner of Smokey D's BBQ in Des Moines, is familiar with all the arguments and best-of lists. But he says the best BBQ in the country is in Central Iowa, and he has the hardware to back it up.

"I walk in every morning, and I just love barbecue. Barbecue is 100 percent of our life," Warth said. "I go barbecue to get away from barbecue. My relaxation time is sitting over a pit on a Saturday during a barbecue competition."

That passion is paying off for Warth and his wife, Sherry. The duo is the only team to win the American Royal Open, Jack Daniels World Championship, the King of the Smoker and, most recently, the Houston Livestock World Championship. Add to that 82 state championships and 800 individual category awards, and you start to build an impressive resume that simply can't be touched by anyone else.

"It’s a balance," Warth said while explaining why his barbecue is so highly rated by judges. "It’s meat, it’s smoke, it’s spice and it’s sauce. It’s not one of those things overpowering the other."

In 2007, the former vice president of transportation for Ruan Trucking in Des Moines, walked away from a lucrative career to focus his full-time attention on championship barbecue competitions and a catering and takeout business.

"It went crazy," Warth said of a catering and takeout business that started in his driveway in 2005. "I was on the road 60 percent of the time. I was traveling everywhere."

That led the couple to open a location in the old Polk County Sheriff's building and eventually in the skywalk in downtown Des Moines. Today the Warths own three locations in the metro while still competing across the country in barbecue competitions.

"When I look at a restaurant and see how it runs I don’t think like a normal restauranteur," he said thinking about his start in the trucking industry. "I think about how efficiently I can get food to the customer and how I can have better customer service. If I can make a customer happy, the rest are just details. Everything is a process to me.”

Those details paid off on the tournament circuit and for his restaurants. He is quick to say the quality of pork, beef and other meats are just as important in a barbecue contest as they are in his restaurants.

"We use one word around here, and it’s 'consistency,'" Warth said. "It’s the consistency that really keeps bringing people back. We bring the consistency and quality that we have in competition barbecue to the restaurant business.”

To do that they use meat suppliers like Smithfield when purchasing their meats.

"We look for a heavy meat cover on ribs with as much marbling as possible," he said. "That ensures it will be a juicy product at the end, whether you are cooking for judges or customers."

Smokey D's business received a boost when famous food "judge" and traveling customer Guy Fieri, host of “Diners, Drive-Ins, and Dives,” featured Warth's wings on his television show. Warth said even though Fieri featured his wings, most customers know Smokey D's for their ribs and burnt ends.

"If you think about Smokey D’s, you're thinking about ribs and burnt ends," he said. "People come here for ribs and burnt ends. There’s not much profit in them, but it is what brings people through the door.”

Any given day, Smokey D's will serve up barbecue to thousands of people. They’ll typically sell about 1,200 racks of ribs per week and serve 125,000 pounds of pork and beef per year.

"We have a weird demographic," Warth admitted. "You have grandma and grandpa sitting here and next to them is a Harley rider with tattoos down his arm and a screaming kid across the way. And it doesn’t seem to bother anybody because it is Smokey D's."

Over the past decade, Warth has built a business and championship pedigree that is tough to beat. Those endeavors paired with other fantastic barbecue restaurants across the state have put Iowa barbecue on the map.

Is it the best? It might be a solid claim for one of the most-debated food topics. One way to find out is to try Smoky D’s for yourself. For locations and other information, go to

Originally published for the Iowa Food & Family Project

Winter sunrise

What do you get when you mix ground fog with the rising winter sun. Until recently I wouldn't have had a clue. But luckily on my way to work I kept a close eye on the fog and how it mixed with the woods until I came upon this scene. It was a light at the end of the tunnel to see this magnificent scene after so many months of grey weather.

The morning sun cuts through ground fog at Saylorville Lake.

The morning sun cuts through ground fog at Saylorville Lake.

Cali Sun stroll

What does a land locked Iowan do when he has few spare hours on a short trip to California? Considering I left the state at the height of a crippling ice storm the answer was clear. You do anything you can to embrace the sun and the ocean.

Surfers pause to judge the waves before making their way into the surf.

Surfers pause to judge the waves before making their way into the surf.

After googling surfing and San Diego my choice was clear. I would soak up the last hours of daylight on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard outside of Ocean Beach, California. If that didn't give me a shot of sunny vitamin D to replace Iowa's winter grey I knew nothing would.

True to planning my two mile stroll along the cliffs relaxed me and gave me the opportunity to take some photos while meeting some great people. The following images are a few of the sights that I absorbed along the way.

Richard Aguirre relaxes in his vintage Volkswagen van while enjoying the last rays of the sun on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in Ocean Beach, California.

Richard Aguirre relaxes in his vintage Volkswagen van while enjoying the last rays of the sun on Sunset Cliffs Boulevard in Ocean Beach, California.

Ozzy a self-described volunteer homeless man plays guitar as friends listen near the water at Ocean Beach, California. Ozzy has traveled across the country via auto, train and foot. Last night he was happy to be reunited with old friends that he had accidentally crossed paths with again.

Ozzy a self-described volunteer homeless man plays guitar as friends listen near the water at Ocean Beach, California. Ozzy has traveled across the country via auto, train and foot. Last night he was happy to be reunited with old friends that he had accidentally crossed paths with again.

Finding the higher ground


Standing on a ridge looking over the terrain mixed with rolling hills, open fields and valleys a decision was made. At all costs and for as long as possible that ground was to be held.

Looking back, over 150 years removed, that decision doesn't seem all that important. After all, the person that made the decision was a trained military leader and had years of experience fighting Indians on the western frontier. It turns out that the decision was crucial to the success of the Union army during the battle of Gettysburg and some will say crucial to the success of winning the Civil War and preserving the United States of America.

General John Buford was responsible for that decision, but more importantly, he was responsible for knowing the terrain and understanding that the “higher ground” was crucial to stopping the main body of General Lee’s Army of Northern Virginia just long enough for the Union soldiers to secure their positions. Thus giving a battered Union army a slight advantage that would prove to be the difference in winning the battle.

Last week during a business trip to Gettysburg, I was able to stand on the ridge and survey the ground that Buford looked at on the evening of June 30 1863. It was a powerful moment to look over the terrain in front of us while thinking of what happened there a century and a half earlier.

Much has been written about the battle of Gettysburg. Bufordwasn’t a flashy person seeking glory and attention. Instead, he believed in himself and through leadership and the respect of his peers was able to make crucial decisions.

At the time and for decades to come not much was written about Buford though. Flashy names like Grant, Lee, Stewart, Sherman and Custer grabbed the headlines and the attention of historians. But it was the resolve and understanding of Buford that nudged history towards a victory for the Union.

To further demonstrate the power of that decision, it needs to be said that in modern sports terms the Union was having a disastrous season. Any team going through and 0-8-1 season would be questioning if they could ever win. Today coaches would be fired, fans would fill the airways with opinions on how to turn the tide of season or just give up for the year all together.

And that’s exactly what was happening during that time. The people of the north were tired of the war and President Lincoln had already fired two generals that weren’t getting the job done. Lee was trying to capitalize on the disillusionment of the Union by leading a campaign in the north to win a major battle and hope for an end of the war. All of these variables collided on the grounds just outside of the small town of Gettysburg. Making the decision by Buford that much more important.

Buford of course didn’t single handedly win the battle or the war. But his actions and heroic efforts delayed the Confederates long enough for the main body of Union troops to grab the true high ground on Little Round Top and Cemetery Ridge.

It has been said that the United States of America was born in Philadelphia in 1776 and preserved on the battlefields of Gettysburg in 1863.

What does all of this have to do with us today? It is a case study that should help us understand how important leadership is. In my mind, many layers came together to make the Buford's decision a success. Buford had earned the respect of his superiors that in turn allowed him to make important decisions. He had also earned the respect of his soldiers so they would carry out his orders without question. He was also able to see the larger picture and understand the importance of taking action.

Learning about Buford and seeing the battlefield made me survey the landscape of my career. I’ve had victories and setbacks as has everyone. I know that moving forward, I’ll keep Buford’s decisions in mind as I look for the higher ground.