When it comes to growing rice, the Bootheel’s Jason Bean is an expert.
The Peach Orchard, Mo., farmer was invited to participate in a whirlwind agricultural trade mission to Cuba and tells SEMO Times the Show-Me State offers the exact products the economically-strapped island nation needs.
The son of the late state Rep. Otto Bean was part of a group of Missourians that spent from March 1 to March 4 in the socialist country, and says he is proud to be one of the first to consult with Cuban agricultural ministers regarding commodity trade.
“We were there primarily to learn their needs,” Bean says Friday. “I think we accomplished that.
“From a rice standpoint, they want long-grain rice,” he explains. “We specialize in growing that very item in the Bootheel.”
Bean says Cuba should be “ramping up” in response to President Barack Obama’s call to lift trade sanctions, and that Missourians have a right to take pride in Missouri-produced goods that might be of benefit to both countries should open trade be initiated.
“If we were able to trade today, we’d have Missouri products in Cuba within a few days,” Bean says. “I did not visit the port side of the country, but I think we’d have products there in maybe five days.”
While Bean’s family farms have the ability deliver in excess of 750,000 pounds of rough rice daily, he says Cuban mills are in need of updating to reach that production level.
“This definitely is an economically depressed nation,” he says of Cuba, which is just 90 miles from the Florida Keys. “Cuba has been through a lot.
“Transitions of power, the Russian pullout, embargos – it’s all taken a toll,” he continues. “We saw two rice mills there. One was a 70-ton mill, which means it could deliver 140,000 pounds of rice a day. The other was a 200-ton mill. They both need work. But I must say, the ministers are anxious to talk and eager to trade.”
Of course, that all depends on financing agreements, Bean notes.
“That’s the job of our State and Treasury Departments,” he says. “And, Cuba’s leadership are sort of wary of anything at the federal level.
“There definitely are trust issues there,” he continues. “But I was really pleasantly surprised to learn the vast majority of people want Americans there. They are some of the nicest, warmest, most welcoming people I’ve ever met.”
Bean says he visited several markets and discussed trade with several agricultural ministers who were experts regarding specific goods.
“Tobacco, sugar and rum in particular are Cuba’s greatest exports,” he says. “I can’t say I saw a lot of American goods there already.
“Not legitimate Western goods,” Bean continues. “But I did have a guy in a U.S. Marines shirt try to sell me soybeans and rice. I thought that was interesting.”
The Missouri farmer says the country not only would benefit from agricultural trade, but from tourism as well.
“It’s a beautiful country,” he says. “There are lots of cultural identities and practices I found interesting during my short visit.”
“Gas is very expensive,” he adds. “Like $4.50 a gallon. And there are lots of people there hitchhiking. I asked if they felt safe doing that. The laws there are so strict and punitive that crime is nearly non-existent. So people stand on the road, a car pulls up and the riders pay for the ride, like a taxi. There are many American gas-guzzlers from the 50s. Most of them have modified motors so people can afford to keep them running. I saw a Russian jeep with a Ford Hubcap and a Toyota exhaust. So the people do what they have to in order to maintain their vehicles.”
Although many people remember what Bean calls “Cuba’s glory days” of the late 50s – “the resorts and casinos that were so popular up to about ’59” – he says Westernizing the forgotten island nation might carry with it a two-edged sword.
“Well, Westerners touring there would want the amenities of a nice hotel-resort complex,” he says. “But I fear that would minimize a beautiful culture.
“I cannot emphasize enough just how nice the people are,” he continues. “The food. The music. The entire Cuban experience needs to be taken into consideration.”
And while he is grateful to be home – he drove all night in a snow and ice storm to make it back to the Bootheel early Thursday – he says he was just as grateful to take part in the excursion, led by Missouri’s First Lady Georganne Nixon.
“I feel very humbled to be offered this fabulous opportunity to represent Missouri farmers, Missouri rice growers especially,” he says. “We have a great trade future ahead of us, if we can get the financing done.
“As an agricultural entrepreneur, I’m sure with the right backing we can make wonderful strides in supplying Missouri products to Cuba,” he adds. “It’s a great thing to be one of the first states represented, and to be on the cutting-edge of possible trade relations with a partner that can really benefit from Missouri products.”