WASHINGTON, D.C. — DeMotte businessman Tim Belstra, of Belstra Milling Co., represented the American Feed Industry Association (AFIA) at the historic signing Jan. 15 of the U.S.-China trade agreement in the White House.
Belstra is the chairman of the AFIA and was sent an invitation from the White House on Monday for the Wednesday event.
At first, he thought it was just a spam email until he received a call from the AFIA’s president asking about the invitation. She arranged a flight for him Wednesday morning, and he left for Chicago's O’Hare International Airport about 2:30 a.m. to catch his early morning flight. He said it was a foggy drive, but he made it in plenty of time.
Having no clue as to where the signing would take place and how many people would be in attendance, Belstra entered the White House's south entrance. He passed through four security stations before entering the main foyer of the east wing, where a group of dignitaries and military personnel were gathering.
The signing ceremony was scheduled to begin at 11:30 a.m. EDT, and those invited were asked to come after 10:30 a.m. Belstra said he arrived shortly after 10:30 a.m., and after arriving in the foyer, was taken to the signing room about 10 minutes later.
While they were led into the room and told what row to sit in, a U.S. Marine in full dress uniform played music on a grand piano.
Belstra explained that in 2011, China stopped exporting animal feed products due to facility registration requirements, which he said still lacks a process for compliance. In order to export these goods, Chinese government officials had to inspect the facility, and there were many facilities that never heard back from them afterwards.
Belstra also said prior agreements with the country never had any ramifications if they didn’t do what they said they would.
With this agreement, if the U.S. FDA says the products are good quality, China will accept them. The agreement also opens up exportation of ruminant (cow) and poultry-based products, which had previously been banned.
“This is a step forward,” Belstra said. “This has been a very costly experience for American farmers. We haven’t had access to Chinese markets.”
As Belstra took his seat in the large room of the White House, he said to himself, “I’m just a country kid from Indiana going to the White House.” He soon discovered the two men on either side of him felt the same way. One was from Alabama and was also the chairman of an animal feed association; the other was a farmer from California.
“They were just regular guys like me,” he said.
They were seated in the back of the room. The front and center sections were reserved for larger players in the trade negotiations, including members of Congress and the Senate, and larger companies involved in making the trade agreement possible.
“It was a humbling thing,” he said. “I was honored to represent the feed industry and Belstra Milling Co.”
President Trump was heralded into the room with the playing of “Hail to the Chief” about 20 to 25 minutes late, followed by the Vice Premier of China and other delegates, including Vice President Mike Pence. Trump gave a speech about the negotiations and the agreement, acknowledging many who were in the room that were involved in the talks.
Pence spoke as well. He said this was “fair and reciprocal trade.” He said, “Today, the change begins.” He also said the greatest impact will be on the American farmer, who will benefit from this agreement. This is the first phase of a trade agreement with the Chinese government.
Belstra said there will be some good things to come out of the agreement.
“American agriculture has paid the biggest price in this trade dispute," he said. "It’s time to get things fixed.”
After the speeches and the signing, and the exit of the President and officials, the remaining attendees were dismissed. Belstra said he walked down the hall, often seen in movies and television shows about the White House, and he took in the pictures and art on display in the hallway as he walked back to the foyer to leave. He took a few pictures of Remington statues, and then he left with most of the others.
He was content with the agreement and said the AFIA had been actively engaged with the trade negotiators. He said the association shared and educated them on the challenges the animal feed industry faced, including the fact that no new U.S. feed additive, premix or compound feed products had been allowed to enter China since 2011.
The AFIA has offices in Washington, and he spent some time there putting together an article for their website before going to the airport for his return trip. In the article, he wrote, “After reviewing the text of the agreement, I am delighted to share that our asks have not fallen on deaf ears! This is a historic agreement that directly addresses, in detail, our issues.
"The agreement specifically lays out commitments and timelines for streamlining and facilitating a facility registration process for feed additives, premixes and compound feed, lifts the poultry and ruminant ban for animal food products and finalizes a regionalization protocol for Highly Pathogenic Avian Influenza.”
Belstra was back in Chicago by 11 p.m. He said he’s going to to tell his grandchildren about his day in the White House and, even though it wasn’t on his bucket list, it was an important day he will always remember.