* Delegation signs record-large US soy purchase agreement * Sales of 2.92 mln tonnes confirmed after signings in Iowa * Sale comes while Chinese vice president tours U.S. By Karl Plume CHICAGO, Feb 17 A Chinese trade delegation signed deals to buy a record amount of U.S. soybeans during a visit to the United States this week at a time when a harsh drought has slashed crops in rival soy exporters in South America. The delegation inked agreements for 13.4 million tonnes valued at $6.7 billion, the U.S. Soybean Export Council said on Friday, a quarter of the more than 55 million tonnes the world's largest soybean buyer will import from global suppliers this year. The deals included 8.62 million tonnes in purchase agreements signed in Iowa on Wednesday and agreements for another nearly 4.8 million tonnes signed in Los Angeles on Friday, the USSEC said in a release. The agreements -- signed during a visit by Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping -- paired Chinese powerhouses such as state-owned trading house COFCO Co Ltd and grain reserve manager Sinograin with the likes of Archer Daniels Midland, Bunge Ltd, and Cargill Inc, among others. The deals, which are not technically sales but often lead to confirmed sales, come as U.S. farmers begin preparing to plant their 2012 crop amid thin stockpiles and as South American crop prospects shrink following a drought. The U.S. Department of Agriculture on Friday confirmed the sale of 2.92 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans to China, a single-day sales record which traders said were the product of Wednesday's signings, helping to rally soybean prices on the Chicago Board of Trade to four-month highs. Additional sales confirmations could come in the days and weeks ahead as exporters finalize purchase terms. Almost all of the soybeans in Friday's record sale, 2.75 million tonnes, would be delivered in the marketing year that opens on Sept. 1. "This soybean purchase is just an example of what's become an ongoing trend. As we see China's economy expand, that is going to require greater imports of foodstuffs," said Sterling Smith, analyst with Country Hedging. "The Chinese are going to continue to be hungry for beans and we are in no way holding a big bean carryout. This is going to increase demand for (U.S.) acres going forward and that is going to create upward pressure on row crops," Smith said. STRONG CHINESE DEMAND The sale announced on Friday was worth around $1.4 billion, based on current prices. The previous record for the largest sale of U.S. soybeans was 2.74 million tonnes, also to China, on Jan. 27, 2011, according to data from the USDA. "These are big numbers and it tells you the seriousness of China pricing," said Don Roose, analyst and president of U.S. Commodities in Des Moines, Iowa. "That is a big number for a new-crop bean sale." Chinese importers often book large purchases of soybeans up to a year in advance as a growing and increasingly urban middle class increases the need for higher quality food. Its advance purchases of yet-to-be-planted U.S. soybeans were, to date, considerably smaller than last year. But more new-crop sales are expected in the coming weeks and months. "They are always buying about a year in advance. I see their appetite for beans still holding every bit as strong or maybe a little bit stronger than it was last year," said Mark Schultz, chief analyst with Northstar Commodities. To date, China has purchased nearly 3 million tonnes of U.S. soybeans for shipment in 2012/13, compared with more than 5.1 million tonnes at the same point last year, according to USDA data. USDA will release forecasts for 2012/13 supply and demand at its annual outlook conference next week, which many analysts believe will show a ninth consecutive year-on-year increase in Chinese imports of soybeans. Imports in 2011/12 were projected at 55.5 million tonnes. Private forecasters have said 2012/13 imports could be up to 59 million tonnes or more. China is the No. 1 market for U.S. farm exports with purchases that totaled $20 billion last year. Sales are forecast to be slightly lower this year due to weaker commodity prices. China buys 60 percent of the soybeans on the world market, including about a quarter of the U.S. crop, and nearly half of the cotton traded internationally. Analysts believe it will become a sizable corn importer in the near term. Benchmark soybean futures on the Chicago Board of Trade rallied to a four-month high on Friday, helped by news of the record sale, closing 0.74 percent higher at $12.67-1/2 a bushel.