Cuba and the Realm of Opportunities

The Cuban cows looked like Brahmas. I asked the president of the cooperative farm we were visiting about the breeds in their 1,200-cow herd, and he rattled off a series of Spanish names, none of which rang a bell with me. So, we’re calling them Brahmas. They’re used for milk and for beef and are fed grass, yucca leaves and sugar cane. The farm plans on four to six litres of milk per day per cow. After converting from metric to U.S. measurement, the production per cow per day is: not much. Of course, whatever breed they are, they’re not bred for their milking ability, and they aren’t fed what we would consider a balanced ration. Milking is done outside, and the milk is gathered in those tin milk cans we see for sale at flea markets.

Cuba is caught in a time warp. It’s as if nothing has changed since about 1959. Beautiful buildings line the waterfront in Havana, but many of them are collapsing. Some restoration is going on, but often only the front of the building is restored, while the rest of the building is nothing but ruins. Cubans rarely have private cars, and many of the cars on the street are vintage 1955, with a diesel engine replacing the original Chevy or Ford motor.

Missouri First Lady Georganne Nixon and Director of Agriculture Richard Fordyce recently led a trade trip to Cuba, and over 30 Missouri farmers were part of the 95-member delegation. We heard from numerous Cuban officials, and the interest in improving trade relations with the U.S. is strong. There is a tremendous amount of work to be done, including repealing or amending the trade embargo with Cuba, but it was clear from our short trip that Cuba needs what Missouri farmers produce. Several of the Missouri rice farmers on the trip toured a Cuban market, and they are convinced that we can send them Missouri rice at a better price and with much better quality. From my trip to the cattle farm, it’s clear that Missouri corn and soybeans would improve the productivity of their beef and dairy herd. The opportunities are there, and it’s time to act.

Trade today is limited not only by the embargo but by the financial requirements placed on trade with Cuba by our government. Cubans complain of the inability to buy on credit and about banking restrictions that make trade more difficult. So, the first step in improving trade will be to loosen some of those restrictions. It’s clear that the Cubans won’t be able to rapidly increase trade without access to more foreign exchange.

So, increased tourism and access to the American market for Cuban rum, cigars and produce is a must. Cubans are very proud of their organic production. They may well choose to produce organically because of a sincere conviction that it’s more healthy, but organic production may not be a choice when you don’t have the money to buy fertilizer, seed or medicine for your animals. Whatever the reason, it is a market niche Cuba can target.

While in Cuba, I visited a grocery store. It was sparkling, and the shelves were full. But there was very little variety compared to an American store. Cubans today are not hungry, as they so often were after the collapse of the Soviet Union, but they would greatly benefit from the variety and choices of food that we take for granted here in the U.S. There is much work to be done by both countries, and Cubans will never be full participants in international markets until they adopt a course of more economic and political freedom. But increased trade with Cuba will benefit both the Cuban people and Missouri farmers.

Blake Hurst, of Westboro, Mo., is the president of Missouri Farm Bureau, the state’s largest farm organization, and was on the trade trip to Cuba in early March.

An editorial column from the Missouri Farm Bureau Federation, Cut to the Chase may be used as an op-ed piece or letter to the editor. 

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