Cuban agriculture
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Cuba pushes to double its rice production

Cuba pushes to double its production
Associated Press
July 13, 2008

BAHIA HONDA, Cuba – Soaring world rice prices have Cubans worried about
keeping the national dish of and rice on the table – and officials
are scrambling to increase local production.

's government hopes to halve rice imports over the next five
years, according to Juan Perez Lamas, vice minister of . To
do that, Cuba will have to more than double production – currently about
200,000 metric tons of milled rice a year.

Rice-obsessed Cubans consume an average of 130 pounds of it a year –
more than double the U.S. average. When rice disappeared for periods
during the lean times of the 1990s, some people cut spaghetti into bits
so it resembled the familiar grain.

Recent rumors that rice might vanish from cheap government rations led
to panic buying at farmers' markets before officials issued assurances
they wouldn't let stocks vanish.

Low prices a few years ago led Cuba to cut rice production, turning to
exports. But world prices have jumped from $500 a ton to more than
$1,200 a ton in just a few months.

That means it makes more sense to use local production, which costs
about $400 a ton, Perez Lamas told reporters at a recent conference on rice.

Cuba now grows just a fourth of the 800,000 metric tons its 11 million
people consume annually.

Officials say they plan to bring abandoned rice fields back into
production, while investing in canals, land-leveling and other
technology to help boost output per acre. They plan to build silos to
help store the crop.

Some farmers like Jose Antonio Espinosa say they're already getting
world-class yields – 17 metric tons of unmilled rice per acre, up from
the national average of less than 10 metric tons per acre.

Espinosa directs the Camilo Agricultural Cooperative in the
western town of Bahia Honda. So far, only 14 of its 2,500 acres are
devoted to rice.

But Espinosa says that could change.

"With the price tripling in recent months, I cannot conceive of someone
with a stream or small dam nearby who isn't growing rice," he said.

Members of the cooperative get part of the rice for their own use and
can sell the rest – some of it to consumers at farmers' markets.

Cuba's Communist leaders so far have resisted raising prices to give
farmers a financial incentive to grow more rice – though Ruben Alfonso,
a specialist at Cuba's Rice Research Institute, says that is under
study. The government has raised prices on some other goods.

Consumers at farmers' markets pay 15 cents a pound – roughly the same as
last year and down sharply from prices in the hardship years of the
mid-1990s, when it could cost 59 cents a pound, a large chunk of a
monthly salary in those days.

Cuba also has struggled with the effects of drought and hurricanes, and
the government is trying to lure young people back to fields where
increasingly gray-haired farmers are nearing retirement age.

"It is a security issue," Alfonso said.,0,3396562.story

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