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Florida farmers worry about Cuba organic growers

Florida farmers worry about Cuba organic growers
Jeanette Leehr, Round Earth Media 4:11 p.m. EDT March 18, 2016

Corrections & Clarifications: An earlier version of this story did not
make clear that opening a Department of Agriculture office in Cuba is a
proposal that has not been approved.

ST. PETERSBURG, Fla. — When third-generation farmer Rick Roth envisions
the possible end of the long U.S. trade embargo on Cuba, just across the
Florida straits, he sees potential competition. And he worries about
diseases, pests and invasive species.

While many U.S. agricultural producers and businesses are eager to start
exporting to Cuba, Florida farmers say the Obama administration’s plan
to allow Cuban imports threatens their $8

billion-a-year business. Florida’s larger organic growers, already
struggling to remain profitable, may be particularly hard-hit because
Cuba has developed a strong organic farming sector.

Initially, Cuba most likely would export many of the same products grown
by Florida organic farms, and the communist nation would enjoy the
advantage of lower wages, state subsidies, cheap transportation and the
novelty appeal of Cuban products.

“About two-thirds of our members are extremely against the Cuba deal,”
said Janell Hendren, national affairs coordinator of the Florida Farm
Bureau Federation, the state’s largest agricultural organization, which
represents 144,000 conventional and organic farmers.

Roth, who grows vegetables and sugar cane on 5,000 acres in Palm Beach
County, said competition from Cuba, never a concern before, is now a
possibility.

“Florida is the logical place for Cuban produce to come first,” he said,
adding that it would be unfair to expect Florida farmers to compete with
state-subsidized Cuban producers. “When you buy Cuban products, are you
helping the Cuban farmer — or the Cuban government?”

In addition to fruit and vegetables, the U.S. might find itself
importing diseases and pests that could wipe out a crop or entire
industry, he said.

Since December 2014, when the United States began restoring President
Obama announced his intention to lift the embargo, diplomatic ties with
Cuba, three bills have been introduced in Congress with the aim of
normalizing trade, with Cuba, including ending the prohibition of
products of Cuban origin from entering the U.S.

In polarized Washington, some Midwest Republicans are on Obama’s side,
seeing a potential bonanza for companies that sell seed, fertilizers and
machinery. Paul Johnson, co-chair of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for
Cuba, the leading farm industry group lobbying for relaxation of the
trade embargo, said pressure from his group, the U.S. Chamber of
Commerce and Obama will build momentum for the change.

But Hendren said flatly, “It’s not gonna happen this year.” The outcome
will depend on who wins this year’s presidential and congressional
elections, and lifting the embargo will likely be a “very hot topic in
2017,” she said.

Cuba once focused on capital-intensive, industrialized agriculture on
large state-run farms, but was forced to change after economic support
from the Soviet Union evaporated.

Beginning in 1990, Cuban food production fell precipitously. The country
shifted to a low-input agricultural cooperative model. Even so, it
suffered serious food shortages in 1994, which prompted further changes.
It embraced a model that included the development of very small-scale
urban farms, which turned out to be surprisingly successful.

“Cuba has the largest experiment in organic agriculture anywhere in the
world,” said Bill Messina, an leading authority on Cuban agriculture at
the University of Florida. “Cuba reports large production volumes of
peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers — all the kinds of products we produce here.”

Food production slowly recovered, and Cuba now exports vegetables and
honey to Canada, citrus products to the European Union and sugar to
China. But Cuba still imports 70% to 80% of its food. Much of what it
produces goes to domestic consumption, but that could change if trade
with the U.S. resumes.

Before that happens, Cuba and the U.S. would need to hammer out trade
protocols and harmonize certification. That process would get a boost if
the USDA’s request for an office and staff in Cuba is approved.

Johnson’s trade group conducted a “Learning Journey” in Cuba last March,
the first major U.S. business visit delegation after Obama’s
announcement. It plans a second trip in late May to bring U.S. farmers
and Cubans together to press ahead on topics that include production,
investment, trade and sustainability.

Transport routes are ready. Ships loaded with food, medical products and
other authorized exports travel weekly from ports in Florida to Cuba.
“But these these ships return with empty containers. It would be good to
have a backhaul; it could help lower shipping costs, too,” Johnson said.

“We have the capacity to do anything and everything with Cuba,” said
Carlos Buqueras, director of the Port of Manatee on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

If the embargo is lifted, Cuba will have to decide whether to continue
to promote organic agriculture or opt once again for an industrialized
agriculture model. Large U.S. agricultural interests are promoting
industrialization and are making it attractive with offers of financing
and investment.

But there’s a lot of money in organics, according to Johnson, who is
also CEO of import-export business Chicago Foods Food International.

“I’m pretty sure I can put a sticker on an [organic Cuban] avocado and
sell it for a whole lot at Whole Foods,” he said.

Similarly, Sun-Maid Growers of California, a large fruit growers’
cooperative, recently revealed that it is looking into importing organic
mangoes from Cuba.

Eva Worden, a Cuban-American organic grower in Punta Gorda, Fla.,
supports a resumption of trade between the U.S. and Cuba but wants to be
sure the fruit and vegetable needs of the Cuban people are met before
encouraging exports.

Worden and her husband, Chris, both experts in horticulture with
doctoral degrees, founded Worden Farms in 2003. They serve 600 families
with regular deliveries of fruits and vegetables and sell at both weekly
farmers’s markets in St. Petersburg and Sarasota. Given the opportunity,
the Wordens say they would look at the possibility of expanding their
production to Cuba.

There’s a cachet in being able to buy something that was once forbidden,
said Jack Woods, a Florida advertising expert with extensive experience
in food marketing.

“Consumers will be able to get a ‘glimpse’ of modern-day Cuba by eating
something as simple as an organic banana,” Woods said. “You don’t have
to travel there to eat it, it doesn’t cost much, and it tastes just like
it does at a farmers’s market in Havana. These Cuban organics transport
us to a time and place we are curious about.”

Cuba is experimenting with some less familiar produce, such as moringa,
said Todd Logan, a Florida organic landscaper who traveled to Cuba. on
an educational trip. Moringa, touted as the next “superfood,” grows on a
drought-tolerant tree that thrives in sandy soils in the tropics and is
very high in protein, calcium and Vitamin C.

Then there’s guanabana, guayabana, also known as soursop. sour sop.
Worden hopes it becomes available in the U.S. Apart from being a
delicious fleshy, green fruit, it is known as an anti-inflammatory and
cancer-fighting medicinal food. She would also welcome mamey sapote, a
fruit “like a small football with scratchy skin, and salmon-colored
flesh” that can be used to make milkshakes and ice cream.

Chef Kenny Tufo runs Sea Salt, an upscale 300-seat seafood restaurant in
St. Petersburg, a few blocks from a proposed site for the first Cuban
consulate in the United States since 1959. Tufo said he imagines using
exotic Cuban produce and developing a dish in line with customer
curiosity about Cuban cuisine.

“I can see people getting on the train,” he said.

Worden beams as she greets customers in her bustling market stall at St.
Petersburg’s Saturday morning market. She is surrounded by her harvest
of colorful organic produce: Brussels sprouts, head lettuce, kale,
Cubanelle and poblano peppers, spinach, Chioggia beets, French breakfast
radishes and cilantro.

Two customers stop by, the Romero brothers, Cuban-Americans living in
Tampa, who recently restored their Cuban citizenship and bought property
there.

Together they talk about their dreams for Cuba and wonder if one day
Worden will see Cuban produce in the market, right alongside her own.

This story was produced in association with Round Earth Media, a
non-profit organization that mentors young international journalists.

Worden Farm utilizes an older Farmall tractor to weed through scallion
rows since the farm does not use pesticides. Worden Farm is an 85-acre
certified organic family farm in southwest Florida. (Photo: Beth
Reynolds, Round Earth Media)

“Cuba has the largest experiment in organic agriculture anywhere in the
world,” said Bill Messina, a leading authority on Cuban agriculture at
the University of Florida. “Cuba reports large production volumes of
peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers — all the kinds of products we produce here.”

Food production slowly recovered, and Cuba now exports vegetables and
honey to Canada, citrus products to the European Union and sugar to
China. But Cuba still imports 70%-80% of its food. Much of what it
produces goes to domestic consumption, but that could change if trade
with the U.S. resumes.

Before that happens, Cuba and the U.S. would need to hammer out trade
protocols and harmonize certification. That process would get a boost if
the USDA’s request for an office and staff in Cuba is approved.

Johnson’s trade group conducted a “Learning Journey” in Cuba last March,
the first major U.S. business delegation after Obama’s announcement. It
plans a second trip in late May to bring U.S. farmers and Cubans
together to press ahead on topics that include production, investment,
trade and sustainability.

Transport routes are ready. Ships loaded with food, medical products and
other authorized exports travel weekly from ports in Florida to Cuba.
“But these these ships return with empty containers. It would be good to
have a backhaul; it could help lower shipping costs, too,” Johnson said.

“We have the capacity to do anything and everything with Cuba,” said
Carlos Buqueras, director of the Port of Manatee on Florida’s Gulf Coast.

Source: Florida farmers worry about Cuba organic growers –
www.usatoday.com/story/news/world/2016/03/18/florida-farmers-worry-cuba-organic-growers/81820314/

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