DES MOINES, Iowa - When young Iowa governor Terry Branstad signed an agreement to establish a relationship with China's Hebei province in 1983, he planted seeds of friendship that are still yielding fruitful results.
The state's close relationship with Hebei in the past three decades has not only accelerated Iowa's export growth to China, but also raised the profile of the American heartland as its old friend, Vice-President Xi Jinping, revisits the state on Wednesday.
In 1985, Branstad met with Xi, then an official in Hebei, in his state capitol office in Des Moines. The now 65-year-old governor, who is still in charge after he returned to the position in 2001, will host the Chinese leader again.
The governor said Xi impresses him as a "likable person": nice, outgoing and hard-working.
"I think it is the biggest thing that happened in Iowa in a long, long, long time," Branstad told China Daily.
Xi, who led a delegation to learn about Iowa's advanced agricultural technology 27 years ago, was impressed by the hospitality and friendliness of the people he met in the state.
During his visit to the United States this year, from Feb 13 to 17, he will leave for Iowa to meet his old American friends after he finishes his meetings in Washington.
The 17 people he met during the 1985 trip are waiting for him in Muscatine, a small town that left Xi with many sweet memories.
After the reunion, he will head off to a dinner reception at the state capitol, attend the China-US Agriculture Symposium and visit a farm on Thursday morning.
"It is an exciting time for Iowa," the governor said. "We are excited about not only the reunion but also the potential that we will have in the future."
He expects that Xi's visit will bring Iowa more trade opportunities with the world's second-largest economy, especially in agriculture and financial services.
The Midwestern state, in the center of the Corn Belt, ranks first nationally in corn, soybean, hog, egg and ethanol production, according to the Iowa Farm Bureau. It also has a strong financial and insurance base with more than 6,000 firms.
China has a fast growing middle-class which will need more protein while its aging population will need more financial services like pensions, he said, putting Iowa in a wonderful position.
Thanks to China's fast economic development, Iowa's exports to China increased 13-fold from 2000 to 2010, according to the US-China Business Council.
The main exports include crop production machinery and processed foods.
China was the state's fourth-largest market in 2010, after Canada, Mexico and Japan, with $627 million in trade volume, according to the US Global Leadership Coalition.
When Xi first visited Iowa in the 1980s, the governor said, agriculture was the weakest part of the local economy, and now it is the strongest.
"One of the reasons for that is the international demand for what we produce, and certainly China is a very important part of that," he said.
Several local agriculture technology companies and manufacturers have already invested in China, including the seeding company Pioneer, agricultural biotechnology corporation Monsanto and machinery maker John Deere.
"There is a lot of business connection (between Iowa and China) and we are excited about enhancing and encouraging Chinese investment in Iowa as well," he said.