Scott Bennett with Taiwanese leaders

State Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, left, speaks with Taiwanese government officials during a lunch stop at The Humble Hog restaurant in downtown Paxton on Saturday afternoon. A delegation of Taiwanese government and agricultural business leaders visited a Ford County farm following lunch.

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PAXTON — While visiting the U.S. to sign notices of intent to buy $2.1 billion in corn and soybeans from American farmers, a delegation of Taiwanese government officials and agricultural business leaders stopped by a Ford County farm to see first-hand how crops are produced here.

While in Ford County, they also got a taste of American-produced pork at The Humble Hog restaurant in the county seat of Paxton, coincidentally as the city was hosting its annual Swine ‘N Dine BBQ Contest & Festival.

Their stop in Ford County was organized by state Sen. Scott Bennett, D-Champaign, who had visited Taiwan over the summer as part of a delegation comprised of officials from four Midwest states. The hope, Bennett said, was that the Taiwanese leaders would depart the U.S. not just with a trade agreement in place but with a commitment to maintain or even increase their purchasing of U.S. crops into the future.

“Taiwan has historically bought from us before, so it’s not like a brand-new market,” Bennett said, “but we want to make sure they continue that and to make sure that we have a relationship where they think of us first.”

Taiwan is the eighth-largest importer of U.S. agricultural products. According to Bennett, the Taiwanese delegation that visited Ford County on Saturday was expected to meet with Illinois Gov. J.B. Pritzker three days later to sign a notice of intent to buy nearly $300 million in Illinois-produced soybeans. The group was also to meet Saturday night with Indiana Gov. Eric Holcomb to arrange a deal with that state, Bennett said. In all, three states were to sign agreements, he said.

Bennett, who serves as chairman of the Illinois Senate’s agriculture committee, said he and Illinois Treasurer Mike Frerichs were part of the delegation from Illinois, Indiana, Minnesota and Wisconsin that visited the east Asian country over the summer “to talk to different groups over there about why they should buy from the United States as opposed to Brazil or other countries.” While there, officials from the four states “kind of competed against each other,” trying to convince the Taiwanese importers and their government to buy from their state instead of the other three, Bennett said.

“(Illinois’ delegates) worked really, really hard with the government of Taiwan to make sure Illinois was one of the three states they were going to deal with,” Bennett said.

Showing the U.S.’s commitment to Taiwan was important, Bennett said, to show the U.S. remains committed to trading with Taiwan, even as China has been “pressuring other places not to trade with them.” Bennett said the necessity to maintain and eventually increase the export of commodities to Taiwan has only grown now that Chinese markets are no longer buying as many U.S. soybeans, for example.

The chance for the Taiwanese delegation to see an American family farm up close and in person — as happened Saturday — hopefully will only strengthen the two countries’ trade relationship, Bennett said.

“They have almost 25 million people to feed — and they’re an island nation — so as they have greater needs, we want to make sure they continue to think of Illinois, and that their leaders go, ‘We had a great time in Ford County, Illinois, and I saw it being grown; I know it’s safe; I know it’s clean; and it’s good people doing it,’” Bennett said.

The Taiwanese delegation was comprised of about 15 soybean and corn buyers and a few government officials, including the head of the country’s agriculture department. Joining them for lunch at Ben Grice’s restaurant in downtown Paxton and on the trip to the Bennett family farm in rural Gibson City were Frerichs and Scott Bennett’s uncle — state Rep. Tom Bennett, R-Gibson City. The farm is currently operated by Tom Bennett’s younger brother, Doug.

“The delegation — I got to know them through my travels (to Taiwan) — and they called me and said: ‘Doesn’t your family farm in Illinois? We’d like to see an American farm,’” Scott Bennett recalled.

Scott Bennett obliged. He arranged for the group to tour the farm and see its machinery in operation just as the fall harvest was getting under way.

Since the group’s visit to Illinois happened to coincide with Paxton’s pork-themed fall festival, Scott Bennett decided it would be a good idea to have lunch at the downtown Paxton restaurant, as well, giving the group a chance to taste the quality of locally produced pork.

He noted that the Taiwanese have “an issue with Taiwan buying Illinois pork,” adding that “the country itself isn’t comfortable with some of the additives that we feed to swine as they’re being raised.” He said he hoped the lunch would perhaps change that perception.

“I thought, ‘What a great time to let these very influential businessmen in ag know that American pork is very safe — in fact, we have a festival for it (in Paxton) where people cook it in a million different ways,’” Scott Bennett said.

Dr. Chen Junne-Jih, deputy minister of Taiwan’s department of agriculture, said the purpose of the so-called agricultural trade mission to the U.S. was to “strengthen our goodwill as well as our agricultural relationship.”

Junne-Jih added that the visit to the U.S. hopefully would help the Taiwanese differentiate the quality of U.S. soybeans from the quality of soybeans produced in other parts of the world. Soybeans, in particular, are widely used in Taiwanese meals, Junne-Jih noted.

“Most of the members of the delegation are buyers of Illinois soybeans and corn ... so it’s a very good opportunity for them to see for themselves the quality and production process of Illinois soybeans,” said Eric Jiun-yaw Huang, director general of the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Chicago. “It’s also a way for them to build more confidence (in American commodities) through first-hand experience and information.”

Scott Bennett said he was happy to show the group around.

“I’m really proud, being a Ford County native, to bring them to my home and give them a chance to see not just a farm but also what we consider kind of the classic American farm towns in Ford County,” he said.