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Illinois ag groups – Cuba is market in waiting

Illinois ag groups: Cuba is market in waiting
MARK TOMARAS, U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba

BLOOMINGTON — Anticipation of increasing trade with Cuba has grown
dramatically for businesses since President Barack Obama announced his
goal of normalized relations in December.

But for decades, agriculture groups never stopped thinking about ending
the embargo. Some individuals and groups, especially in Illinois, kept
an eye on the tiny nation with hopes of future trade.

“As the nation’s top soybean-producing state, the momentum on this issue
is exciting for Illinois agriculture and our soybean farmers,” says
Ridgway farmer Bill Raben, chairman of Illinois Soybean Growers.

For him and others, this change has been a long time coming.

“Both the Republicans and the Democrats want to end the embargo,” says
Paul Johnson, executive director the Illinois Cuba Working Group (ICWG),
which aims to improve trade opportunities.

“I went in 1995 (to Cuba for the first time) because I was curious about
a place so close that was a forbidden communist country,” Johnson says.

His relationship with the country started as a master’s thesis, becoming
a business and a vocation. He has made more than 50 trips to Cuba in the
past 20 years.

The ICWG grew out of an initiative that began in 1999 when Illinois
became the first state to send representatives to Cuba during the embargo.

Later, the federal Trade Sanctions and Reform Act in 2000 permitted the
sale of agricultural products and represented the first major effort to
remove barriers to “normalize” trade relations with Cuba.

The United States’ stronger political will to rebuild a relationship
with Cuba’s 11 million residents comes as financial change is happening
in Cuba, Johnson notes.

About two-thirds of the economic change is in the agricultural sector,
but there is room for more growth.

“There is an opportunity to fill in the blanks … and to connect the
dots,” Johnson says.

This can include helping get vegetables from a field to a port quickly,
sharing know-how in agricultural production and updating credit policies.

“The real momentum is that people want to fix the historic
relationship,” he says.

Johnson, also president of Chicago Foods, says lessons learned here also
will help U.S. trade strategy in Latin America.

Along with the ICWG and ISG, Cargill is among the founding members of
the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC). In November, the
organizations met with Cuban leaders.

“We told them that our next visit to Cuba would be with the national
coalition. It was extremely satisfying for all of us to see it come to
fruition,” says ISG’s Mark Albertson, director of strategic market
development.

“The core part of the USACC Learning Journey was farmer-to-farmer
exchanges,” he says. “There is a universal connection among people who
grow food and care for the land.

“We were there to listen and learn. Cuba clearly has potential to supply
the U.S. with various ag imports, including high-quality seafood, fruits
and vegetables, rum and tobacco, all of which could be backhauls on our
Midwest ag products that we ship to the island.”

As far back as 2008, U.S. exports to Cuba were $685 million, with about
half that value coming from corn and soybeans — “so already that’s a
viable market and a good one. It’s not the world’s biggest but still
important given the geography,” Albertson notes.

What’s next, according to Albertson, would be passage of a travel act.

“The fact that Americans are greeted with such open arms, given the
history between our governments, is a testament to the irreversible
change that has begun. It is hard to picture our relationship going
backwards; it would like trying to put toothpaste back in the tube.”

The timing seems right, says Andrew Loder, vice president and global
transformation leader of Cargill’s animal nutrition business, who also
participated in the learning journey.

Cuban farmers want to learn about how to improve productivity in the
dairy business and want good good nutrition for their livestock to
become more profitable. At the same time, the company can learn more
about how the climate and conditions impact animals in Cuba to optimize
their products and services for other countries with tropical climates.

Other divisions of Cargill see an opportunity, including Black River
Assets Management, which focuses on investments in land and other
business, he notes.

Marengo farmer Duane Dahlman, ISG marketing committee chairman, likewise
sees strong potential.

“We’ve been to Cuba, we’ve met with customers and we’ve heard from the
Cuban people,” he says. “All of this gives us the necessary perspective
and contacts to capitalize on eased trade restrictions.”

There is still much work to be done, politically, financially and in
research.

“It’s a market waiting for us if we can get the protocols right,” says
Illinois Director of Agriculture Philip Nelson.

Source: Illinois ag groups: Cuba is market in waiting –
http://www.pantagraph.com/business/farming/illinois-ag-groups-cuba-is-market-in-waiting/article_b9d6a8b6-42a6-5d9b-b463-27d6af900937.html

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