Trip could be promising for rice producers
JEFFERSON CITY -- A recent trip to Cuba by a Missouri Trade Delegation could prove promising for Southeast Missouri farmers, especially rice producers.
"There's definitely potential there (in Cuba)," said Paul T. Combs, who represented Riceland Foods Inc. in New Madrid during the week long trip last month.
In the 1960s, before Fidel Castro became president of Cuba, the country received rice exports from Riceland Foods. Missouri was Cuba's No. 1 rice exporter. Now it's about No. 8, Combs said.
"The Cubans eat a lot of rice. It's a rice and bean-based diet so our Bootheel will really benefit from opening trade," noted Peter Hofherr, deputy director of the Missouri Department of Agriculture, who led the trade mission with Lowell Mohler, department director.
Although Cuba is in need of many reforms, Mohler said the country also needs the food Missouri farmers can provide. Mohler said he was pleased with the outcome of meetings the group held with the agriculture, tourism and purchasing officials and expects trade relationships between Cuba and Missouri farmers to increase.
"We have to work to make people understand this is a country of opportunity for Midwest farm products," Mohler said.
The current U.S. embargo on Cuba limits trade to food and pharmaceuticals on a cash basis. As a result, Missouri rice, corn and soybeans are the most promising exports at this time, Mohler said.
But with Congressional interest in further easing trade restrictions, there is tremendous potential for Missouri farmers to sell their goods in Cuba, which currently buys its foodstuff from Canada and South America.
The trade mission met with Pedro Alvarez, head of Cuba's food buying agency, and although they didn't meet with Castro, the dictator told a U.S. Congressional delegation that Cuba planned to buy $1 billion of commodities and processed food from the United States. Missouri could potentially receive $20-$30 million for its products.
"We think Missouri is going to benefit the most out of all Midwestern states so a couple things have to happen."
He continued: "We have to have direct foreign investment, which probably means we need a different leader in Cuba to get that done, and then I think the market will be wide open for Missouri."
Missouri's greatest benefit is transportation because it would be easier to deliver goods to Cuba from Missouri, Hofherr said.
In addition to rice, the corn, soybean, beef and pork, the wine industries and other processed foods were also discussed during the trip since Cuba is trying to build its tourism industry, Hofherr said.
Other participants in the trade trip were Bunge Foods, St. Louis; the Missouri Corngrowers Association, Jefferson City; Missouri Food and Fiber, Garden City and Monsanto, St. Louis.
Hofherr said his perspective was that Cuba has had a lot of degradation to its infrastructure since the early 1960s. Most of the country's systems have not changed since the 1960s and aren't prepared to handle large-scale trade with the United States.
However, Hofherr said he was surprised with Cuba's advancement and progression over the years in life science experiments. They're producing genes into different polymers and plants, he explained. Monsanto representatives were also impressed, Hofherr added.
The trip to Cuba was definitely a positive experience, Hofherr pointed out. He said the relationships the delegation made in Cuba will open doors for Missouri agriculture in the future.
"We are negotiating on current trade deals," Hofherr said. "I think it's all about learning the market, but you can't do it on the phone. You've got to show up in person."