* China, No 1 in 2011, could be top customer again in 2012
* US exports were record $137.4 billion in fiscal 2011
* Ag Sec‘y Vilsack to visit Vietnam, China next week
WASHINGTON, Nov 10 (Reuters) - China, the world’s largest importer of cotton and soybeans, has topped Canada to become the No. 1 market for U.S. farm exports for the first time, the Agriculture Department said on Thursday.
U.S. exporters sold $20 billion in agricultural products to China during the fiscal year that ended on Sept. 30, according to a newly completed tally. It was the first time China was the top market for an entire fiscal year. The USDA has forecast sales to China and Canada of $19 billion apiece this fiscal year.
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was scheduled to visit Vietnam and China next week with the goal of removing barriers to U.S. goods.
The world’s most populous nation and a dynamic economy, China shot to prominence as a U.S. farm export market in a few years. In 2004, it was the No. 5 buyer with $6 billion in purchases.
In the past year, China gained attention as a potentially large consumer of U.S. corn. It bought 900,000 tonnes of U.S. corn in mid-October and is believed to be the unidentified buyer of 1.25 million tonnes in March. China is the second-largest corn grower in the world behind the United States, the largest exporter.
Overall, U.S. farm exports were a record $137.4 billion in fiscal 2011 and were forecast for $137 billion in fiscal 2012, which opened on Oct. 1. Leading customers, besides China and Canada, are Mexico, Japan, the European Union and South Korea. (Reporting by Charles Abbott; Editing by Marguerita Choy)