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Feeding China: Key Players

Harry Stine, 73, is considered the wealthiest man in Iowa, with a fortune estimated by Forbes Magazine at $2.3 billion.

He has made his wealth from breeding soybeans and corn and licensing the genetics to seed giants including Monsanto, Bayer, Syngenta and DuPont Pioneer. Germplasm from Stine research has gone into Roundup Ready soybeans and other popular varieties.

Stine said he's not in China to get richer, however. His effort to enter its corn seed market is a combination of business and philanthropy. One of his goals is improving yields and bettering life for Chinese farmers.

Harry Stine, Founder of Stine Seed, Adel

"Our initial success came from soybeans, and the germplasm from those soybeans all came from China," he said. "So you might say we have a moral obligation."

Second, the plant breeder doesn't need the money. His global empire is based in a headquarters outside Adel that could be mistaken for a local farmers co-op. He presides over meetings in the main conference room at a pingpong table. He lives across the road, on land where he was born. He still relies on the Raccoon River valley for wild parsnips and mushrooms.

"I dig roots in the ditch. I pick nuts and berries in the woods. I don't need the revenue," he said. "I can get by with breaking even, and most people I compete with can't."

Stine first visited China in 1976, but he has entered the market carefully, knowing the risks there. He scoffs at those who try to forecast their sales growth.

"All kinds of companies, including newspapers, make projections over what they're supposed to do over the next amount of time. I maintain that they should use that same time they're making those projections to do something worthwhile.

"The point is, I don't have the slightest idea," he said. "A lot of things we do, we never know for sure if they're going to take off."

Li Zhao, President, China Iowa Group, West Des Moines

Stine Seed's efforts to break into China are due to Li Zhao, Harry Stine said. She began working with Stine more than four years ago.

Zhao, 32, is a native of China who spent 25 years there. She runs China Iowa Group, an import-export company based in West Des Moines, with her husband, Justin Mandelbaum, a Des Moines native.

Zhao said she still has relatives who work in agriculture, and she believes that Stine genetics can improve the lives of poor farmers in China.

"Their living standard is so low," she said. "It breaks my heart."