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Chester gives US cause for rethink on China trade

Xinhua | Updated: 2018-08-27 13:10
Agritech experts teach Chinese farmers in Huaibei, Anhui province, how to plant, grow and manage mushrooms. [Photo by Li Xin / For China Daily]

CHESTER COUNTY, United States - While US President Donald Trump sees an "economic enemy" in China, the northeastern US county of Chester in Pennsylvania sees an economic partner.

The county, with an area of 1,965 square kilometers and about 516,000 people, has long taken pride in its diverse agricultural products. Farmers here produce a whopping half of all the mushrooms in the United States. Soon some of them will grow mushrooms in China, for China.

Chris Alonzo, president of Pietro Industries, a third-generation family-owned and operated mushroom farm, has partnered with a Chinese businessman to open a mushroom-growing facility in East China's Anhui province. He expects it to be operational by the end of this year and produce 17 metric tons of mushrooms daily in the beginning.

The partnership could not have been established without the help of the Chester County China Initiative, a project launched in 2013 by Chester and the Chester County Economic Development Council to build business and cultural ties between the US county and China that in turn will bring in Chinese investment and create high value-added jobs.

The program also seeks to increase the number of joint ventures between the two sides.

Alonzo found his Chinese partner when a delegation from China took a tour organized by the CCCI, looking for business opportunities.

For his first project in China, Alonzo will introduce advanced mushroom-growing technology to Chinese employees and be responsible for their training. His partner, on the other hand, is contributing all the funding needed for the project.

The most valuable technologies Alonzo will bring are for making compost and growing mushroom year round.

"The hay and straw we use to make compost can bring nutrients out of it. But unless it's handled in the correct way, you can't get all the nutrients out, which will reduce quality and productivity," Alonzo said.

By introducing the environment control system he uses in his US facilities, Alonzo and his team will be able to control the temperature, humidity and other elements key to mushroom-growing and harvesting mushrooms year-round.

"We will be able to have the same quality mushrooms in winter as we do in summer in China," he said.

Fresh mushrooms are only one of the success stories of joint projects between the two countries. The CCCI team is working hard to make similar agricultural projects possible.

Terence Farrell, the county commissioner who initiated the CCCI, said his team is working with a number of partners to explore developing a milk processing plant in Chester or in southeast Pennsylvania that would turn liquid milk into stable dried and shelf milk products, with both potential investors and target customers from China in mind.

The county is also strong in financial service as well as biopharmaceutical and manufacturing industries, according to CCEDC Chief Operating Officer Michael Grigalonis.

Grigalonis said the highly educated workforce and terrific quality of life are the main reasons why many companies choose to headquarter in the county. Local businesses value the Chinese market and have been supporting the CCCI vigorously, he added.

Contract research organization or CRO Frontage went to the Chinese market fairly early.

The full service CRO lab, which manages clinical trials to help clients bring potential new drugs to the market, opened the first research facility more than 10 years ago on the Chinese mainland and now has multiple clinics and research and development facilities across the country.

Li Song, founder of Frontage, sees huge growth potential in the Chinese pharmaceutical industry, especially after the Chinese government stepped up regulating the drug and medical device review and approval process since 2015.

The company's Chinese business generated more than $21 million in 2017 from $3.5 million in 2015. It expects to see even faster revenue growth in China in the next five years.

Many local businesses continue working closely with their Chinese partners even at a time when the Trump administration has unilaterally initiated a tariff battle.

Asked about the tariff issue, Farrell said: "What happens at the federal level is beyond my pay grade, but what we want to continue to do is to build bridges between our municipality here and other municipalities and people there that want to do business.

"In the long run, these grassroots kind of efforts to have people-to-people exchanges will benefit not only us locally, but will also help set a mood in the country."

In addition to business cooperation, the CCCI team is facilitating cultural and educational exchanges between Chester and cities across China.

Chester has several gardens, which attract tens of thousands of tourists every year.

By 2020, China will overtake Britain to become the largest overseas tourist market for the county, according to Susan Hamley, executive director of the Chester County Conference and Visitors Bureau.

She said the county's tourism department has been in contact with tour operators in China, who will soon start selling Chester tourism packages.

"Most people will start by going to New York City and then some will go to Philadelphia for all of the history. We want them to take a drive a little bit further west... and they will get a completely different experience," Hamley said.

Chester is a mere one-hour drive from Philadelphia.

Since more Chinese now have 10-year tourist visas to the US, they are looking for special vacation experiences rather than just visiting the big cities, she said. That is why, Chester has an increasing chance of becoming popular among Chinese tourists, she added.

The promotional efforts have already begun to take effect.

Li Hang, a Chinese tourist to Longwood Gardens, Chester's most famous garden, said he did not find much information on the botanical garden on American travel site TripAdvisor. But he saw many comments and introduction to Longwood on Chinese websites such as Ctrip and Qunar. He decided to visit the garden after reading the reviews.

At West Chester University, professors are looking for opportunities to offer students more international exposure. The university is currently partnering with several universities in China, such as Southwestern University of Finance and Economics and Beijing Union University.

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