As Erin O’Donnell and Steve Vargas completed their undergraduate studies at Chico State, both learned a lesson that would weave itself throughout their careers: Relationships matter.

Earlier this month, they made US agriculture history using that key principle.

O’Donnell (Physics, ’03) and Vargas (Agricultural Business, ’90) agree they never would have been able to negotiate the first rice sale by a US company to one in China without the longstanding friendship and professional contacts they cultivated with their overseas partners the last 15 years.

“Whether they are Japanese, Korean, Chinese, etc., we feel it’s central to have that next-step personal relationship,” Vargas said. “Find customers you will have lasting friendships with.”

Both alums work for Sun Valley Rice Company—Vargas as senior vice president of global rice trading and O’Donnell as assistant vice president of global rice trading. The landmark agreement they contributed to is more than a decade in the making.

Sun Valley Rice, founded by Mike LaGrande (Agriculture Science and Education, ’65), first began discussing the California rice market with China in 2004. Vargas, O’Donnell, and others have had countless trips, meetings, and conversations to negotiate the sale in the ensuing years, finally leading to this month’s historic agreement.

Erin O'Donnell poses with individuals representing US and Chinese rice in front of a folding screen of cherry blossoms during a visit to China.
Erin O’Donnell, second from right, stands with members of the USA Rice Federation, Dragon Ocean Hing Group, the US Embassy, and the USDA during a recent trip to finalize the sale.

Patience proved to be as critical as those foundational relationships, Vargas said. While others in the US agricultural industry had long given up on the Chinese market, he continued to travel there every year, never giving up hope the market would eventually open.

He worked especially closely with William Li, overseas director of Shenzhen Yintuo and vice president of Dragon Ocean Hing Group, one of the largest importers of rice into China, becoming such good friends that he attended Li’s wedding in 2016. Li said in a statement that Sun Valley’s knowledge of Asian cultures was a major factor in the resulting contract.

That expertise is something Vargas has been working on for more than 30 years. He was born in the small central valley town of Newman, surrounded by almonds and cattle. Heading into college, he wanted to do something in international business and set his sights on the Japanese market.

He credits College of Agriculture Professor Emeritus Lal Singh as a lasting influence and says he was the reason Vargas moved abroad and lived in Japan for three years, learning Japanese and getting his footing in global trade.

“He inspired me by leaps and bounds and helped propel me on my international journey,” Vargas said, noting he later went to India to see where his mentor was born and got his start in the world.

His global vantage point was also expanded by the diversity of students with whom he studied.

“It’s an international, open perspective that Chico provided. I made numerous friends from around the world—France, Greece, Saudia Arabia,” he said. “It was often just the very open, communal spirit that Chico State has always had.”

Steve Vargas, left, stands with US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and Yumi Kojima with the USA Rice Federation.
Steve Vargas, left, stands with US Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue and USA Rice Federation representative Yumi Kojima.

O’Donnell’s route to agriculture and global business was not as direct. After earning her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in physics, she worked for many years in the highly competitive technology industry. When an opportunity came up to transition into agriculture five years ago, she was excited to find the industry so collaborative and to have the chance to work in a field that drew on her relationship skills.

And she continues to tap into lessons from her days at Chico State, especially those from physics professor emeritus Louis Buchholtz.

“He really taught his students how to look at the world and ask the questions in ways that you could search for and find those answers,” she said. “That’s something you can bring with you in any career, whether it’s science or business.”

She and Vargas are proud to note they are among 11 Chico State alumni who are employed at Sun Valley Rice. Their advice for young alums: You can achieve anything through hard work. It was that spirit of determination and dedication that enabled them to land this landmark sale, which comes at a particularly sensitive time in US trade relations with China, amid political tension.

The success has since garnered them attention from CNN, Bloomberg, Reuters, and The New York Times, among other media outlets. This victory, while great, is but a small reward of the work they do on a daily basis, the alums agree.

“I grew up in ag, and you always feel like it’s satisfying,” Vargas said. “You are creating a tangible product that helps feed the world. California is the breadbasket of the world.”

“With California rice, we have been able to develop relationships with people around the globe,” O’Donnell added. “People really value the rice that we grow, and it makes it special to work here, to live in California, and support the California economy.”