Chinese ambassador visits Story County farm, drives tractor, amid heightened U.S., China tensions

Danielle Gehr
Ames Tribune

Following a path first traveled by Chinese President Xi Jinping a decade ago, Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang visited an Iowa farm Friday to talk about U.S. agriculture and emphasize the need for good relations between the two nations.

The visit came amid heightened tensions between the U.S. and China over Russia's invasion of Ukraine. China has not criticized the invasion and has maintained normal economic relations with Russia even as other countries have imposed sanctions.

But there was scant discussion of Ukraine on Qin's visit to the Kimberley family farm, near Maxwell in Story County, as part of a three-state agriculture-focused tour through the Midwest. Qin called his visit to Iowa inspiring and emphasized the need to build a strong relationship between China and the U.S.

"I have had the opportunity to talk to American farmers," Qin said. "American farmers are warm, sincere … They not only talk about 'my farm, my family.' You have a worry for people."

As heavy rain fell outside, the ambassador sat in the Kimberleys' living room, learning about the six generations of the family who have farmed the land since 1866, when their ancestors emigrated from England. Qin asked how farmers manage the multitude of risks they take on. 

"I'll just say it's not easy," Rick Kimberley said. "You just have to be able to adapt."

Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang drives a tractor under the guidance of Iowa farmer Rick Kimberley, during a visit to the Kimberley family farm on Friday, April 22, 2022, in rural Maxwell. The tractor is the same tractor Chinese President Xi Jinping sat inside while visiting the farm in 2012.

Qin reached forward to grab a handful of soybeans displayed on the coffee table, carefully observing them before letting them fall back in the glass vase. China is the largest soy consumer in the world and the No. 1 importer of U.S. soy. Iowa farmers rank second nationally in soybean production, producing 621 million bushels in 2021. 

Qin later got a taste of what Iowa farms produce, sampling beef and deviled eggs — though Kimberley referred to them as stuffed eggs as he served the ambassador while wearing a "King of the Grill" apron. 

The Kimberley farm is just one of Qin's Iowa stops. Wednesday, the ambassador visited "old friends" in Muscatine, and on Thursday he attended a luncheon at the Harry Stine Center in Des Moines.

Qin's visit continues a series of ties between Iowans and Chinese dignitaries. In 1985, when Xi was a relatively minor official, he visited Iowa while leading an agricultural delegation from Hebei Province, Iowa’s sister state. He stayed two nights in a private home in Muscatine, and the Iowans he met then have since been referred to as "old friends" of Xi. 

Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang climbs into the same tractor China's President Xi Jinping sat inside while visiting Rick Kimberley's farm, on Friday, April 22, 2022, in rural Maxwell. The Kimberleys have kept the tractor since Jinping's visit in 2012.

Rick Kimberley and his wife, Martha, have made several trips to China to speak on trade and agriculture. They also traveled to Hebei Province to demonstrate modern U.S. farming techniques.

When Xi visited Iowa again in 2012, then as vice president and in line to become president, the Kimberleys welcomed him for a visit to their farm. Chinese tourists regularly stop by the farm to walk in the footsteps of their president. 

Another prominent Iowa-China tie: One of the people that Xi met with in 1985 and again in 2012 was Gov. Terry Branstad. Branstad was later appointed by President Donald Trump to serve as ambassador to China from 2017 to 2020.

More: From the archives: How China hopes a transplanted Iowa farm will help transform its aging ag industry (and boost Iowa trade as well)

Once the rain lightened, Qin paid homage to President's Xi's visit to the Kimberley farm by driving the same tractor Xi sat in during the 2012 visit. The Kimberleys have kept the tractor despite upgrading to newer tractors with updated technology. 

"I am happy to a be a one-day farmer," Qin said. 

The Kimberleys' son, Grant, joked that they will have Qin on a combine come harvest season. Grant Kimberley, Iowa Soybean Association market development director and executive director of the Iowa Biodiesel Board, has gone on 20 trade missions to China. 

Rick Kimberley and Chinese Ambassador Qin Gang sample Iowa foods during the Ambassador's visit to the Kimberley farm, on Friday, April 22, 2022, in rural Maxwell.

Iowa has a history of its farmers making connections with world leaders. More than 60 years ago, Roswell Garst welcomed Soviet leader Nikita Kruschev to his Coon Rapids farm.

Though China has purchased record amounts of U.S. agricultural products in recent years, tensions between the countries have risen over human rights in Hong Kong, the COVID-19 pandemic and now the Russian's invasion of Ukraine. 

At the Kimberley farm, Qin mentioned the impact of the Ukraine crisis on global agriculture. Ukraine and Russia are major wheat exporters, and Russia is the world's leading exporter of fertilizer. Rick Kimberley said he feels for Ukrainian farmers and the people of Ukraine and said the impact of the conflict will be felt worldwide.

Tensions could send Beijing looking to other countries when purchasing farm goods, according to Bloomberg News. China purchased 57% of the U.S. goods and services in 2020 and 2021 that it had committed to buy in a 2020 trade agreement, according to the Peterson Institute for International Economics.

Qin said Friday he wishes to see trade remain stable between China and the U.S. and emphasized cooperation between the two countries. 

Gifts were exchanged as a symbol of friendship Friday, a scarf and a souvenir from Beijing for the Kimberleys, and a model John Deere tractor, a journal and corn and soybeans for the ambassador and his wife. 

"If our two countries come together, the rest of the world will come together," Rick Kimberley said. 

"Farmers have to come together first," Qin said. 

Danielle Gehr is a politics and government reporter for the Ames Tribune. She can be reached by email at dgehr@gannett.com, phone at (515) 663-6925 or on Twitter at @Dani_Gehr.