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Gov. Brian Schweitzer, back from a week-long trip to China, said Monday he had “very fruitful discussions” about Montana exporting pork to China — and that a Chinese delegation will visit soon to examine a possible pork-processing plant site near Shelby.

“I think this pork deal has a pretty good chance,” he told reporters at the Capitol. 

The plant, which would be financed by Chinese investors, could be a $150 million plant that processes 800,000 pigs a year, the governor said. The animals would come from pork producers in Montana, the Dakotas, Alberta and Saskatchewan.

Schweitzer said his administration has been talking to pork producers and others about the possible plant for several years.

However, he said he knows Chinese investors and business people are looking at other sites in the West, which has relatively little pork production.

“I’m sure I’m not the first girl that they took to the prom,” he said. “Their pork production is increasing at such a rapid rate … that they know today and have known for some time that they will never be able to produce the quantity of pork that they consume.”

If a pork-processing plant is built in Montana, it would create a substantial new grain market for Montana farmers, as well as a market for hogs and a “value-added” product that Montana can export, the governor said. 

Schweitzer flew from Montana to Hong Kong on Jan. 28, accompanied only by a one-person security detail, at state expense. He returned to Helena Sunday, via Tokyo and Minneapolis. The trip cost about $5,000, he said. 

The governor visited China last November as part of a delegation from the private, nonprofit Council of State Governments, of which he is the president. He said he arranged last week’s trip to follow up on Montana-related interests with Chinese business people, because the earlier trip focused on the council’s agenda.

A major figure in last week’s trip was C.H. Tung, a Hong Kong businessman whom Schweitzer met on the first trip and whose family owns a shipping company, the governor said. Schweitzer described Tung’s family as “one of the most prominent families in Hong Kong and capitalist families in all of China.”

Tung also is a former chief executive of Hong Kong. 

Tung arranged a series of meetings with shippers and other business people who discussed the logistics and cost of exporting processed pork from the western United States to China, Schweitzer said.

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The governor said he expects a Chinese delegation to visit Montana within the next month or so to examine a possible plant site near Shelby in north-central Montana, and discuss the various costs.

“They’re going to see if the numbers will work,” Schweitzer said. “We think they will.”

The governor said he also talked with the Chinese about other exports from Montana, such as grain and coal, but that exporting these raw products faces cost and logistical hurdles that make them less likely in the near future. 

The Chinese are huge consumers of chicken and pork, and with their growing population, are in search of new sites for pork production, he said. They already buy substantial amounts of pork from pork-producing centers in the Midwest, so they want to expand production elsewhere, he said.

“This is what I did as a private citizen, for most of my career,” the governor said of his trip, recalling his work in developing farms in the Middle East. “I think we made a pretty big impact with the food companies in China.” 

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