I recently returned home to Kansas after traveling to China to participate in a U.S. Sorghum trade mission. The trip was organized by the U.S. Grains Council, and we were the first U.S. trade mission team into China since the pandemic.

It was a whirlwind – our team’s daily schedule consisted of reengaging with past sorghum buyers as well as meeting with potential customers throughout four cities throughout south China. 

Our team traveled by way of planes, trains and automobiles while moving throughout the country. While our world has been back to “business as usual” for some time following the pandemic, China is still slowly re-entering that space.

There were very few foreigners and much of the tour groups we crossed paths with in public spaces were domestic. 

Our days were filled with very official meetings in large office buildings. Our team entered a conference room and sat at a large rectangular table directly across from the Chinese team. We had name placards and business cards. The mood was quite serious. During these meetings – sometimes through translators – we’d discuss the U.S. sorghum crop, transportation logistics, weather concerns, producer concerns and market opportunities. There was no doubt that these meetings were all business.

But following each meeting a major shift in the atmosphere would always occur. Our groups would leave the conference room and gather together again within a spacious dining room, which always consisted of a large round table. Our two unique teams would sit shoulder to shoulder and partake in food and drink together. We were no longer looking across a table to our counterparts. Instead, we were sitting beside them as warmly welcomed guests.

The stark contrast between the business meetings and the meals struck me. Time and time again as our meal host would serve a piece of fish, tofu, goose or something new and exotic to me. It was very apparent we were not just sharing a meal together but also nurturing established or building on newly created relationships. 

It took a round table and food to bring our teams together. It took a round table and food to have candid conversations about our families, our hobbies and our ways of life. It took a round table and food to minimize the barriers that tend to set us all apart.

There is no doubt relationships matter. Many of the relationships that have been developed with our Chinese sorghum buyers have been works in progress by groups like ours within the U.S. agriculture industry over many, many years.

It’s also glaringly apparent our governments are not on good terms currently. Tensions are high and trust is lacking.  

But we share common ground when it comes to food. Afterall, food is what allowed our trade mission team to enter into China in the first place. Food was the topic of our meetings. And it was while enjoying food together that allowed us to grow and nurture relationships that will benefit us all.

If only more of us – both domestic and abroad – were willing to gather around, shoulder to shoulder at a round table while enjoying food together. What a world it could be.