China has agreed to allow U.S. rice imports for the first time ever, opening a “massive market” for Louisiana farmers.

“It’s huge,” Louisiana Agriculture Commissioner Mike Strain said in an interview with USA Today Network. “This opens up a massive market for us.”

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue announced the deal, which has been more than a decade in the making, on Thursday.

“This market represents an exceptional opportunity today with enormous potential for growth in the future,” Perdue said in a statement.

Elton Kennedy and his daughter and partner Meryl Kennedy Farr are among the state’s largest producers and operate two rice mills in Louisiana and a third in Arkansas.

Kennedy, who runs an international agriculture business from his Morehouse Parish headquarters, is a past recipient of the USA Rice Federation’s Lifetime Achievement Award.

“You bet it will be a boost in an industry that sure needs one,” he said. “It’s great news for our industry that’s had a real struggle with the export market.”

Though China is the largest global rice producer, it’s also the largest consumer and importer. The country imported almost 5 million tons last year.

“It fantastic news for Louisiana rice,” said U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham, R-Alto, who sits on he House Agriculture Committee. “I’ve met one-on-one with Secretary Perdue and I can tell you that he gets it. We talked about how important trade is to agriculture.”

Acadiana producer Richard Fontenot, who was named the 2016 Rice Farmer of the Year by the USA Rice Federation and Rice Farming, credited Perdue with keeping his word to make the deal with China a priority.

“It was a promise made and kept,” Fontenot said. “Every new market we get benefits Louisiana rice. The whole industry is excited about the possibilities.”

Louisiana producers planted about 400,000 acres of rice this year, mostly in the Delta and Acadiana. That’s about a 10 percent acreage reduction from 2016.

“The best rice in the world is grown in the heart of Acadiana, with Louisiana rice farmers already contributing more than $700 million to the state’s economic output each year,” said Congressman Clay Higgins, R-Port Barre. “Expanding rice exports, while ensuring that Louisiana farmers are competing on a level playing field, supports thousands of jobs and generates much-needed economic activity in rice country.”

“This is a tremendous leap toward selling U.S. rice in China,” USA Rice Chairman Brian King said in a statement. “Today’s signing caps a decade of effort by the rice industry and the U.S. government to open access to the world’s largest rice importer.”

LSU AgCenter economist Mike Deliberto called the agreement “historic and promising.”

“It gives us the opportunity to gain access to the world’s largest rice market, which has been increasing its imports every year,” Deliberto said. “When you create more export demand it injects vigor into the rice market. There’s definitely a lot of excitement surrounding the deal.”

U.S. rice exports can begin following the completion of an audit of U.S. rice facilities by China’s General Administration of Quality Supervision, Inspection and Quarantine.

Greg Hilburn, USA Today Network

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