Leaders in Missouri agriculture are taking steps to export products from the Show-Me State to Cuba. Efforts to initiate trade with Cuba began when President Barack Obama announced he would like to normalize trade relations with the long-isolated country in 2014.
After President Obama’s announcement, Missouri’s Director of Agriculture, Richard Fordyce, and Gov. Jay Nixon joined the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.
The U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba mission statement says, “An increased exchange of ideas, knowledge, capital and credit will benefit both countries. We strive to turn Cuba from an enemy to an ally within our lifetime by building trade relations with an honest appraisal of the past, and a fresh look to the future.”
Gov. Nixon and Fordyce traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend a press conference where they announced a mission to Cuba that would be led by Missouri in the spring of 2015 to look for potential trade opportunities. Since then, embassies have opened in Washington, D.C., and Havana, Cuba.
“Things have moved along, not at a really brisk clip, but they are moving along,” Fordyce said.
In May of 2016, Gov. Nixon and Fordyce made a second trip to Cuba, this time bringing agriculture leaders from Missouri.
“I would not be as optimistic about the situation if it were not for the fact that things are happening,” Fordyce said. “Not terribly quickly, but they are happening.”
Other states, such as Illinois and Virginia, have also been active in promoting their goods for trade with Cuba. Kansas, for instance, has been proactive in efforts to begin exporting wheat.
Prior to the embargo in 1962, Cuba was the No. 1 export destination for Missouri rice, which will probably be the first Missouri product back into Cuba, Fordyce explained. According to Greg Yielding, director of emerging markets with the U.S. Rice Producer’s Association and a member of the Missouri Rice Council, Cubans eat over 100 pounds of rice, per person, per year.
“What they are getting now is not high quality rice,” Yielding said.
While Cubans have grown their own rice, it isn’t enough to supply the needs of the population.
“It definitely could be a major market, and a major rough rice market,” Yielding said. “Forty percent of the rice that we export out of this country is rough. It’s not milled.”
Rough rice is rice that has not had the husk removed from the grain. Before human consumption, the husk must be removed. After removal of the husk, the rice is brown rice. White rice has been processed a step further than brown rice, and has had the bran and germ removed. Bran can be used for animal feed, as well as for other uses. For example, other countries, such as Korea and Japan, use the bran to create bread and muffins.
According to University of Missouri Extension, Missouri is ranked fifth in rice production in the U.S. with over 250,000 acres of rice.
“Southeast Missouri State University has done studies showing that we could grow over a million acres of rice in the bootheel,” Yielding said.
The U.S. exports 50 percent of its rice, Yielding explained. That’s why trading rice with Cuba is so important. Americans typically consume Thai Jasmine Rice or Indian Basmati Rice, which are both imported, because few farms in the U.S. grow those special varieties.
“We are strategically positioned with access to the Mississippi River to have an advantage, frankly, on getting product to Cuba,” Fordyce said.
Once trade opens with Cuba, product will be moved down the Mississippi River to the Gulf of Mexico, then transported through the intercoastal waterways to Cuba’s Port of Mariel.
Rice isn’t the only product Missouri is hoping to trade. Missouri is also looking at feed additives, which would benefit Missouri corn and soybean farmers. As travel restrictions relax and more Americans travel to Cuba, Cuba will have a greater need for meat products such as beef, pork, and poultry.
“In 2015, Cuba imported about $2 billion worth of food and food products, and as tourism increases, and there are more foreign visitors going to Cuba, the need to source more food product is going to increase,” Fordyce said. “We can certainly fill that market as well. From a producer’s perspective that’s a pretty wide open opportunity.”
Trade with Cuba not only includes food products, but possibly even technology. A majority of Cuba’s agricultural technology is outdated. Some say at best it is 20 to 25 years behind the U.S. Yielding described his visit to Cuba as taking a step back in time. Both the U.S. and Cuba could benefit from a technology exchange. Cuba has done a surprising amount of work in medicine and cancer research, something that Fordyce and Gov. Nixon recently discovered on their trip to Cuba this past spring. In exchange, Missouri’s research in biotechnology and animal health would benefit Cuba.
Depending upon the year, Missouri supplies between 6 to 10 percent of the value of the U.S. agriculture exports, Fordyce explained. For instance, if the total potential for export in Cuba is $2 billion, then an estimated $200 million could be brought into Missouri through trade with Cuba.
“I think that’s conservative given the advantages that we have,” Fordyce said, referring to the estimated money trade with Cuba could bring to Missouri.
Another expert in the field brought in a slightly different perspective.
The relatively small population of Cuba must be considered said Patrick Westhoff, director of the Food and Agricultural Policy Research Institute at MU.
“You know if you’re thinking about how changes in trade might effect U.S. agriculture over the next several years, I’d have to argue that what happens in Mexico, what happens with China is far, far, far more important than what happens with Cuba,” Westhoff said. “At least for the bulk U.S. producers.”
While some people believe it is wrong for the U.S. to open up relations with Cuba, Yielding said that the U.S. already trades every day with China, a communist country. In fact, he said Iran used to be the U.S.’s largest rice trade partner.
While the whole embargo may not be lifted, Yielding is hopeful the U.S. will be able to trade agriculture products with Cuba. It remains to be seen how the installation of a new U.S. president will impact the results of the efforts of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba.