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It may sound strange, but if all goes well, American farmers will soon be exporting rice to China. Chinese supermarkets could stock US rice as early as next year, alongside other imported western goods that are popular with the country's burgeoning middle classes.

In mid-October, the USDA's Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service (APHIS) received a draft protocol from the Chinese government on requirements for importing US milled rice. Now American mills are poring over the document. China is the biggest consumer of rice in the world, accounting for 30% of global consumption - as well as the largest producer.

But US rice farmers are hopeful that they will soon reach a final agreement with Chinese buyers, who they believe are keen.

Greg Yielding, head of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association, told the Western Farm Press: "The Chinese want to buy US rice, are ready to pick it off the shelf, and are willing to pay more for it as long as it's high-quality. We're this close to providing that product."

China recently opened up its market to British pork exports. Well-off Chinese shoppers are hungry for western goods, from fashion to food - and have developed a taste for things like frozen salmon, chocolate, crisps and cereals.

Yielding says it's important to get a deal done quickly. "US rice farmers need that market opened up. Farmers just want to sell their crop."

The bulk of the draft protocol deals with the danger of pests and how to prevent them being shipped to China with the rice. Yielding think it's not really an issue with milled, pre-packaged rice. In any case American mills already have traps set up for pests.

The slowdown of China's runaway economy is already being felt by American exporters. Companies such as equipment maker Caterpillar to engine maker Cummins have been hit, along with the rest of the US machinery and scrap metal industries which previously benefited from the Chinese boom. This has led to thousands of jobs being lost in US manufacturing.

According to the latest GDP figures, US economic growth in the third quarter was held back by the first drop in exports in more than three years. The onset of American rice exports to China could help counteract this worsening in the US trade position.