Elite Chinese group tours Finger Lakes area

Loujane Johns
Ryan Hallings, far right, talks with visitors outside Birkett Mills.

 The World-Wide Web steered a group of important Chinese visitors to our area last week. 

The daughter of one of the visitors had seen the Finger Lakes Region, specifically Finger Lakes Economic Development Center, on the web and thought it would fit in well with the group’s agenda.

The tour entitled “Rural Economic Development and Poverty Alleviation  - A Project for China,” was arranged through the Office of International Visitors, Bureau of Educational and Cultural Affairs of the United States Department of State.

The project goals were outlined as follows: To highlight the economic, political, and social factors that influence rural economic development and poverty alleviation efforts in the United States; to explore the role of agri-business and rural entrepreneurship in driving economic development and poverty alleviation; to gain exposure to the work of local, state and national level actors in rural economic development and to examine the effects of financial and social programs in rural areas.

Arriving in Washington, D.C. on July 11, the group toured the city before three days of meetings began with representatives of U.S. Department of Agriculture and Rural Development.

 A chartered bus brought the group to Syracuse, with a stop in Lancaster County Pennsylvania for an opportunity to visit an Amish farm.

Ruth Ragonese, Executive Director of the International Center of Syracuse, worked with the State Department in setting up the Finger Lakes tour.  She says the center co-ordinates services for short-term international visitors.

 “I have been waiting to show-off our beautiful Finger Lakes area,” Ragonese says.  She escorted the group of 12 along with three interpreters.

Empire Zone Co-ordinator Ryan Hallings was delighted to learn that the visitors wanted to come to Yates County to see how a small rural community weaves agriculture and economics. 

 Hallings joined the visitors at Birkett Mills to see the business which has been in continuous operation since 1797.  A member of the group related to the mill because he owns a wolfberry company in China.  There were many questions asked through the interpreter.

Standing in the parking lot for the introduction, the interpreter related the story of the giant pancake as told by Andy Shuck, of Birkett Mills.  This was followed by laughs and giggles and photos.

The next stop was at the Lakeview Organic Farm, New York State’s largest organic grain facilities,  owned by Klaas and Mary-Howell Martens.  Mary-Howell said they were amazed at the questions posed by the group and the interest they took in the farm.

A Finger Lakes agricultural trip would not be complete without a visit to a winery.  The bus stopped at Fox Run Winery, where the visitors enjoyed lunch and the view of Seneca Lake.

Beijing University Professor Weiwei Ying, who perhaps had the best understanding of English, said the group was amazed by the size of the farms.  In China, he said,  farms are very small. They provide food for the family and a very small amount for local markets. He called the scenery “very beautiful.” 

Ying said although his interest is in the fine arts, he has great concern in the economy and feeding the largest population in the world.

The Yates visit concluded with a tour of Fox Run’s processing facility and of course, a wine tasting.

After a few more days in Central New York the tour moves on to the lights of Broadway. July 19-23 they will explore rural farming near Orlando, Fla., focusing on financial and social services.  Ying said in Florida, they will visit rural areas, where they will touch on social issues such as rural health care, a local women’s shelter and visit a science camp.

The visitors will then divide into two groups, visiting the nation’s Heartland. The Kansas City group will focus on farm life, agricultural education and marketing.  The St. Louis group will visit a research center and a small business incubator.

The home-stretch takes the visitors to California, where the theme is rural entrepreneurship and farmer/migrant workers rights. They will learn about education, legal assistance and finance for the poorest of farmers and workers.

Although thousands of miles separate the United States and China the problems seem to be common.  Ying said the Chinese people are migrating to the cities, because they can’t make a living off the land.  This has led to overcrowding.  He said the trip will give ideas on working with the problems.

Ragonese pointed out that the visitors are all young.  “This is a diplomatic mission for people in authority.  They are on their way up.”  She said they will take what they have learned back to their country and put it to good use.