As a busload of Japanese barley end-users unloaded in Washington state in the late 1980s, so began the first trade team of many that Mary Palmer Sullivan would host over a now 30-year career with the Washington Grain Commission.
That team, organized by the U.S. Grains Council (USGC), focused on feed barley destined for the Japanese dairy market. Sullivan had a background in dairy, but the 25-member delegation spoke no English and each member had a specific interest to discuss, ranging from reproductive health to nutrition. The diverse and large trade team represented logistical challenges, but also provided Sullivan with her first realization of how important international markets are for U.S. farmers.
“It was an eye-opening opportunity for me to try and gather 25 people, but it also cemented the idea that our industry is dependent on trade,” said Sullivan, now the vice president of the Washington Grain Commission. “Whether you are talking about barley or you are talking about wheat, the world is a very small place. How many people we work with and that we host for trade teams – it is amazing.”
Throughout her tenure, Sullivan said Washington farmers have continued to focus on growing high quality feed barley versus malt production. Although barley acres have declined significantly in Washington, farmers there grow some of the best feed barley in the world.
Sullivan has worked with Japanese customers ever since that first trade team. She recalled traveling to Japan every six months in the late 1990s as grain buying shifted from single desk selling through the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry and Fisheries (MAFF) to simultaneous buy-and-sell. She also has worked with Japanese Waygu beef producers, who have a tradition of adding barley to their rations to enhance white marbling and white fat.
“I built a lot of relationships and made a lot of friends and saw a lot of things that I would not have otherwise seen,” Sullivan said. “It has been really interesting to see the countries that we have been exporting to have really changed from developing countries to middle-class environments.”
Sullivan participated in a USGC-organized Pioneer mission to Japan and China in the late 1990s, her first opportunity to interact with corn and sorghum staff outside of Council meetings and her first trip to witness the explosive growth happening in China. She also recalled the changes in the Mexican market over her tenure.
“It is amazing to realize how much has changed and how positive that is for agriculture,” Sullivan said. “It is pretty humbling to be a part of that. To think we have had our foot in the door, helping these countries develop, is amazing.”
Today, Washington farmers are diversifying their interests beyond feed barley, directing research dollars into malt and food projects.
“In the 30 years that I have been working on barley, the rules are bending,” Sullivan said. “People are changing the way they look at barley and different flavors and qualities are taken into consideration that were not before. It is opening up a lot of doors – both domestically and internationally.”
Washington is well-positioned to take advantage of export opportunities with barge, rail and truck options to deliver large quantities of grain to Portland and the logistics to send containers of specialty orders, like identity-preserved grain, to Seattle.
Throughout all the transitions that have occurred during her career, Sullivan said her organization has remained a member of the Council to help capture opportunities for trade for when they arise. The Council recognized Sullivan for 30 years of service during its 58th Annual Membership Meeting in Denver, Colorado. Throughout her career, she said the Council has had the foresight to look toward the long-term needs of U.S. agriculture.
“Grain does not just leave the farm and magically appear in a country somewhere. There are a lot things that happen between the time it is planted and delivered – and many folks that are a part of that journey,” Sullivan said. “We are all partners.”
About the U.S. Grains Council
The U.S. Grains Council develops export markets for U.S. barley, corn, sorghum and related products including distiller’s dried grains with solubles (DDGS) and ethanol. With full-time presence in 13 key markets and representatives in an additional 15 locations, the Council operates programs in more than 50 countries and the European Union. The Council believes exports are vital to global economic development and to U.S. agriculture’s profitability. Detailed information about the Council and its programs is online at www.grains.org.