Heavy machinery, automobiles, steel and oil top the list of goods and materials the People’s Republic of China is importing these days to feed the country’s booming production and consumer economies. Lawn mowers may be next.
Turf grass, planted in city parks, playing fields and landscaped municipal areas, is spreading faster than a Beijing traffic jam. (Just so you know, Beijing had 16,789 traffic jams in 2002, and the average “rush hour” there is 11 hours long.) During the 2002–2003 fiscal year, China imported more than 13 million pounds of Oregon-grown grass seed, an increase of almost 4,000 percent over the past decade.
This phenomenal turn of events has taken place largely as a result of export market development, led by the Oregon Seed Council in partnership with Oregon State University, and emergence of a trend in China to adopt western-style landscaping. Turf grass is replacing bare soil or concrete surfaces in public-use areas in China.
How did the Chinese become so enthusiastic about turf grass, a horticultural amenity that Americans take for granted?
“The bottom line is quality of life,” said Kelvin Koong, an OSU professor and native of China. “You have to remember that China is a developing nation. People in China have more financial flexibility now due to the economic growth of the country and can afford to improve the places where they live with landscaping and grass lawns.”
In addition, China wants to develop a tourism industry, Koong noted. Beautifying areas in and around the major cities with landscaping makes the country a more inviting travel destination.
It’s quite a marketing success story for Oregon grass seed, one of the state’s major agricultural industries.
However, the leap in grass seed exports to China is only the latest chapter in a market development saga that has played out over the past two decades.
The Oregon Seed Council, with the help of OSU Agricultural Experiment Station researchers and Extension educators, first began working to open grass seed markets in China back in the early 1980s. Koong, as a representative of the OSU College of Agricultural Sciences, went on two of the numerous trade team visits to China that have been made by industry and university personnel.
The project started as a joint effort by the Oregon Seed Council (OSC), the Oregon Seed Trade Association, the Oregon grass commodity commissions and the Oregon Department of Agriculture.
“Initially, we sent seed samples of some Oregon grass varieties to Beijing for planting trials,” said Dave Nelson, OSC executive secretary. “The seed sat in a warehouse for some time before eventually being planted, but more importantly we began building connections with the Chinese.”
According to Nelson, the person-to-person, university-to-university and government-to-government contacts have been essential to the project. The Chinese call this Guanxi, the process of building relationships.
Harold Youngberg, OSU professor emeritus and former OSU Extension Service grass seed agronomist; David Hannaway, OSU Crop and Soil Science Department forages specialist; and Bill Young, OSU Extension Service grass seed agronomist, make up the OSU contingent of what Nelson refers to as the project’s China Team.
“They opened many doors for us in China through their relationships with Chinese students and faculty who, at various times in the 1980s and 1990s, studied in the OSU Crop and Soil Science Department,” Nelson said.
OSU administrators also helped push the project forward by participating with Oregon government officials in key meetings with Chinese officials.
“At first, the marketing project focused on forage grasses because of widespread problems in the country with soil erosion and shortages of forage to feed livestock,” said Youngberg.
Youngberg participated in several of the early visits to China by OSC representatives and continued working on the China market development project after retiring from OSU in 1989. He and Hannaway, along with industry representatives, worked with their Far East counterparts to establish forage grass demonstration trials and deliver forage management workshops. They also invited agricultural universities in China to send students and scientists to OSU to learn more about grass seed agronomy.
“Technology transfer has always been a central part of the project,” said Youngberg. “From the outset, we wanted to give the Chinese an understanding of how to properly grow grasses from seed so they would be assured of using the product successfully.”
This exchange ended in 1989 with the Tiananmen Square incident in which the Chinese government cracked down on public dissent in the country. The U.S. government protested by immediately terminating federally funded programs with ties to China.
All OSC-OSU marketing activities in the country stopped, but by 1992, the political winds had changed. China’s government relaxed controls on the economy, allowing international trade to accelerate.
That same year OSC acquired a grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Foreign Agriculture Service’s Market Access Program (MAP) to renew market development activities in China.
The Market Access Program is designed specifically to provide funds for the development of overseas markets for U.S. agricultural commodities. OSC first applied for a MAP grant in 1992, using the funds for travel and reestablishing contacts in China, picking up the pieces of earlier efforts.
OSU’s China Team also welcomed Bill Young at about this time. Youngberg’s successor as OSU Extension grass seed agronomist, Young joined the project and made his first trip to China in spring 1995.
“The visit was sort of a reconnaissance mission to see if there might be interest in starting up another seed trial project,” said Young. “Our intentions were to stimulate interest in Oregon turf grasses by showing the Chinese how successful the product could be in their climate.”
Young began renewing acquaintances with old friends from China almost as soon as he got off the plane.
“I saw several people that I knew personally or through mutual associations from their time at OSU,” Young said.
“There was Li Min, a member of the Agricultural Seed Testing Group at China Agricultural University (CAU) in Beijing, who had studied at the OSU Seed Testing Laboratory, and Peter Hu, a grassland scientist at CAU who spent two years as a visiting professor in the OSU Crop and Soil Science Department while writing a book on forage grasses,” said Young.
And at Nanjing Agricultural University (NAU) Young met Cao Weixing, an agronomist who finished his Ph.D. in agronomy at OSU in 1989.
“I remember getting off the little embassy bus in Nanjing and Cao Weixing coming out to greet our group,” said Young. “Tom Burns, an Oregon seed company representative on that trade team visit, later said the OSU connection at NAU really opened the door for us and he was absolutely right. Cao Weixing had gotten the university deans from animal science, horticulture and crop science to meet with us. It really helped get their attention about the potential benefits of introducing cool-season grasses in China.”
The warm reception proved to be a positive beginning.
Young and OSC staff, working with Chinese university faculty, set up three turf grass trials at CAU, NAU and Shandong Agricultural University in Shandong Province, with the help of MAP grant funds.
Along with the turf trials, the Oregon trade team members presented turf grass management workshops at the three universities and invited Chinese scientists to attend turf management workshops in the United States.
The undertaking was successful and evolved into the China National Turfgrass Variety Trials in 1997, a fee-based turf trial program expanded to 12 sites throughout China. Oregon seed companies paid fees to have their seed included in the trials. Agronomy scientists at CAU and NAU coordinated the project.
Because of their early involvement in the first round of trials, CAU, NAU and Shandong Agricultural University became centers of excellence for turf establishment and management, and for post-graduate training in turf and forage grass science.
The launching of the turf grass trials also presented the opportunity to bring together government officials from Oregon and China to recognize the turf trials partnership.
“When you do business with the Chinese they expect you to invite your government leaders to meet with their government leaders to demonstrate the importance of your relationship with them,” said Nelson.
So OSC arranged a ceremony in Beijing early in 1998 where Oregon’s governor at the time, John Kitzhaber, along with the president of OSU and the director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture met with China Ministry of Agriculture and university officials to sign an agreement of cooperation.
In spring, 2003, Oregon government and OSU officials and seed industry representatives met again in Beijing with China government leaders to conduct trade talks. Governor Ted Kulongoski, Katy Coba, director of the Oregon Department of Agriculture, and then-OSU President, Tim White, attended the two-day meeting.
The China national turf trials introduced Oregon turf grasses around the country, but Nelson is careful to point out that the Chinese are still interested in forage grasses to prevent soil erosion and provide feed for livestock.
The erosion problem has become especially severe. In China’s arid north, late winter winds often blow dry topsoil into giant dust storms that completely envelop major cities such as Beijing and Shenyang. Huge dust storms have caused problems for some of China’s neighbors including North Korea, South Korea and Japan. Some of these dust storms have even drifted west to the United States.
Hannaway, who originally joined the project to work on forage grasses in China, is developing Geographic Information Systems (GIS) technology solutions that may help land managers keep China’s topsoil from blowing away.
GIS software enables programmers to spatially arrange information from different kinds of maps into a computer-based GIS map. In the China GIS project, information contained in soils maps and climate maps of China are essentially superimposed over a geographic map of the country. Users can then access soils and climate information for any geographic location on the GIS map.
Hannaway and Chris Daly, climatologist in the OSU Department of Geosciences, also added data on the climate and soils requirements for successful growth of various types of Oregon forage grasses.
“Users of this system can input the growing requirements of a particular variety of forage grass and get output in the form of a map of China showing where that variety is best adapted,” said Daly.
For example, the Chinese want forage grass varieties they can use to control erosion problems associated with the Three Gorges Dam hydroelectric project, which has created a 400-mile long reservoir on the Yangzte River in central China. Young and OSC personnel recently helped Chinese agronomists establish a forage grass trial near the dam.
According to Daly, the computer-based GIS mapping project has the potential to identify forage grasses that will grow successfully in the area, and thus reduce the need for costly and time-consuming planting trials in the future.
Whether it’s forage grasses to slow erosion and feed livestock, or turfgrasses to beautify urban areas, the future looks very green for Oregon grass seed. Currently, 80 percent of all the grass seed imported by China comes from Oregon growers.
Nelson admits to being a bit overwhelmed by the success of the China market development project, and he is optimistic about the future.
“We’ve surprised ourselves over what’s been accomplished. It’s not unrealistic to project that China may be importing 100 million pounds of Oregon grass seed annually in five to 10 years,” he said. “The 2008 Olympics will be in China and we anticipate that government leaders in Beijing will want to do a lot more landscaping with turf grass to prepare for that event.”
With all this “greenification” going on, certainly lawn mowers will be in high demand. Kelvin Koong thinks so.
“If I was 20 years younger I would go back to China and start a turf maintenance business,” he said. “They’re going to need a lot of that.”