Delegation explores trade opportunities in Cuba

Screen shot 2016-01-12 at 7.13.49 AMLEROY, Minn. — Cuba is a country of contrasts.

Intermingled with picturesque palm trees and open-air restaurants are dilapidated buildings and aging infrastructure.

Just days after her return from her first trade mission, LeRoy farmer Chris Sukalski reflected on her visit to the island nation and the disparities and opportunities she saw there.

Sukalski represented the Minnesota Dairy Promotion Council and Midwest Dairy Association on the Dec. 13-17 trade trip, led by the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. The delegation also included representatives from Minnesota Corn, Minnesota Soybean, Minnesota Grain and Feed Association, Minnesota Wheat, Minnesota Turkey Growers Association and the Minnesota Barley Research and Promotion Council.

Sukalski said Cuba represents a potential growth market for Minnesota’s dairy farmers. Eleven million people live in the country and an estimated 3 million tourists visit the country each year. The tourists and residents are looking for dairy products.

Cubans receive a ration card, which entitles each family to a liter of milk per day for children up to age 7. After that, milk isn’t government rationed. A black market exists for milk ration cards, she said.

They visited a supermarket on their trip and didn’t see many dairy products. There was no fluid milk, sour cream nor cream cheese on the shelves. There were gallon pails of strawberry and vanilla yogurt, unmarked and with no ingredient list, Sukalski said. UHT milk, condensed milk and powdered milk was available. Ultra-high temperature milk has an unrefrigerated shelf life of six to nine months.

She saw a lot of cheese, both at the morning hotel breakfast buffets and in the restaurants they visited. Gouda was the most common cheese. Their hotel breakfast also included bottles of drinkable yogurt.

Sukalski and three others broke from the delegation to visit an iconic ice cream parlor in Havana where they were segregated from the Cubans. Cubans would wait up to an hour in line for their chance to savor two flavors of ice cream. Tourists were herded into another part of the building and given four flavor choices: Vanilla, chocolate, fruit or caramel. The ice cream was good and likely a huge treat for locals, but it wasn’t the quality Americans are used to, Sukalski said.

In addition to the segregation, the fact they were in a foreign land was reinforced when security officers interrupted a conversation some members of the delegation were having with a Cuban man, who has relatives in the United States. The security officers appeared suddenly and lead the man away from the group.

“You hear stories of how they have ears everywhere,” Sukalski said, adding, “I expected to feel the dark shadows of communism and Castro.”

They arrived in the country when it was dark and their first stop was a restaurant on a farm. It was impressive, absolutely beautiful, but once seated, she noticed that a huge portrait of Fidel Castro on the wall seemed to be peering over their shoulders as they dined.

Two other large pieces of art related to Castro. One was a close-up drawing of a shoulder patch on his uniform and the third, a close-up of his cap.

“Castro’s presence is definitely still very evident and in-your-face,” Sukalski said.

The delegation heard from Cuba’s leading agricultural professor and researcher, an international lawyer and visited other experts at farms and markets.

The agricultural professor said there is a push in Cuba to make their farms more productive so the country is able to produce as much of its own food as possible, she said.

Sukalski said she didn’t get the feel that there was a huge profit margin for farmers in Cuba and she wondered how they would afford better seed or feed.

They visited the farm of Fernando Funes Monzote, who has a doctorate and is fluent in English. Sukalski said Monzote has applied for the right to own the farm when the present 92-year-old farm owner dies, but the pathway to ownership isn’t entirely clear.

Monzote started his farm with one hive of honeybees and has grown to 75 hives, which he has started to move to more locations. He raises vegetables to sell to restaurants in the cities. The vegetables are raised in small, terraced plots on the side of the hill. The plots were started by clearing the rocks, Sukalski said. Oxen were used to work the farm.

She did see a few small tractors in fields in another area of the country, but she couldn’t tell what kind they were as they were well-used.

Modes of transportation in the country covered the gamut from horse-drawn carts to motorcycles, bicycles, tricycles, horseback riders, 1950s American cars, newer generic cars and tour buses. There were also walkers and people hitchhiking.

Even with all those modes of transportation, Sukalski said she never saw any accidents.

The trade trip to Cuba ended a year from the day that President Barack Obama and Cuban leader Raul Castro announced they would begin the process of normalizing relations. The two nations had been at odds since 1961.

“Americans can now visit Cuba on research, education, trade or business missions, but tourism, as we know it, isn’t allowed for Americans yet, although Cuba has been a tourist destination for other countries for decades,” Sukalski said.

A trade embargo remains in effect, but food is exempt from the embargo. The goal is to get normal trade relations so the country can buy on credit. Now, all transactions must be in cash.

“Several signs point to Cuba as a great potential export market for Minnesota farmers,” said Dave Frederickson, Minnesota agriculture commissioner, in a news release.

Federal lawmakers must remove the trade restrictions and Sen. Amy Klobuchar, D-Minn., has introduced a bill that lifts the trade embargo. Rep. Tom Emmer, R-6th District, has introduced a similar proposal in the House of Representatives.

Janet Kubat Willette, agrinews.com

January 11, 2016

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