Farm Bureau president: Ag trade with Cuba would be no simple task

Tim Landis

Even if human rights issues were settled and trade barriers taken down, buying and selling in Cuba is not a simple matter of transportation, Illinois Farm Bureau President Phil Nelson says.

“They are still using farm practices from the 1950s. It’s very primitive, and there’s not a lot of technology, even though it’s 90 miles from our shores,” said Nelson.

The farm bureau has been among the leading advocates of easing trade restrictions with Cuba, including participant in a March trade mission.

Nelson said health and safety are chief concerns as a result of agricultural practices in Cuba, especially for livestock that eventually could be shipped to the United States.

“They have some tremendous health issues with their animals and livestock. If we truly open up exports, we don’t want to injure our livestock by bringing in diseases,” said Nelson, who added that it would take time to set up a U.S.-style health and inspections system in Cuba.

Money is the next major challenge, said Nelson. Cuba doesn’t have much cash.

“Credit is a big thing in Cuba. They just don’t turn cash over, and they’d like to see that credit extended,” said Nelson. While some short-term loans are allowed, Nelson said long-term credit is the key to opening Cuba to U.S. products.

The Bush administration imposed cash-only payments for U.S. products, and there are no immediate plans to lift the requirement, even as the Obama administration eases restrictions on travel.

Nelson said farm groups are trying to organize another trip to Cuba in early 2010, adding that events appear to be moving toward the easing of the nearly 50-year-old sanctions.

“It’s a relationship that needs to be cultivated,” he said.

Tim Landis can be reached at (217) 788-1536 ortim.landis@sj-r.com.

U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba in 2008:

--Corn, $196 million.

--Poultry meat, $136 million.

--Wheat and wheat products, $135 million.

--Soybeans and soybean products, $133 million.

--Rice, $6.9 million.

Total: $691 million

Source: U.S. Department of Agriculture's Foreign Agricultural Service