Farmers look to increase exports to Cuba
ALBANY — It's too early to tell what will come from this week's visit by President Barack Obama and his family to Cuba— both politically and economically — but one outcome could be increased agricultural sales of Oregon products to the island.
Politically, the United States slapped a trade embargo on the Caribbean island of 11 million residents after Fidel Castro's guerrilla army took control in 1959 and allied with communist China and Russia.
But in reality, more than $300 million in U.S. agricultural products were exported to Cuba in 2014 under the Trade Sanctions and Export Enhancement Act of 2000.
In fact, the United States was the leading exporter of agricultural products to Cuba for nine of 11 years since 2000, topping out at $658 million in 2008.
Leading exports have been chicken, corn and soybean meal.
An estimated 70 to 80 percent of all food consumed by Cubans is imported.
President Obama spent two years in secret talks with Cuban officials and in December 2014 announced that diplomatic relationships would be restored. A symbol of that effort was the recent reopening of the U.S. embassy in Cuba.
Bruce Pokarney of the Oregon Department of Agriculture said that although other states in the Southeast or along the Eastern Seaboard would have an easier trade path to Cuba, just 90 miles away from Florida, the expanded Panama Canal has made the trip from the Pacific Northwest to Cuba more economically feasible.
"Obviously, our top market is Asia," Pokarney said. "But we are always open to looking at new markets. It's a situation where we want to maintain existing markets and to find new ones."
Pokarney said Oregon could play a role in providing specialty products such as hazelnuts, which are on a marked upswing among products grown in Oregon. New hazelnut orchards are popping up throughout the mid-valley.
Oregon wines could also be welcomed in Cuba, if not necessarily for its own residents but for the flood of tourists, expected to jump from last year's 3.5 million.
The number of tourists from the United States jumped 77 percent last year alone.
Those tourists generated almost $2 billion in revenue, or more than 10 percent of the country's total gross domestic product.
Oregon products that could likely see increased exports include wine, craft beer, blueberries, apples, pears, cherries and beef.
According to the U.S. Department of Agriculture, the European Union and Brazil are Cuba's leading agricultural partners, with the United States third.
The European Union and Canada are Cuba's largest supplier of wheat with more than $170 million and $67 million in sales, respectively. The United States has not shipped wheat to Cuba since 2011.
Argentina and Brazil were the largest corn exporters and the U.S. was third with $28 million in sales. The United States had been the country's largest exporter of corn from 2002 to 2012, reaching 64 percent of the country's corn supply in 2012. That figure dropped to 14 percent in 2014.
Other major exporters to Cuba are Vietnam and Brazil, which supply the majority of the country's rice. The United States once supplied up to 40 percent of Cuba's rice needs, but has not exported rice to Cuba since 2009.
Although more than 20 percent of all adults work in agriculture in Cuba, farm products account for less than 10 percent of the country's total gross domestic product.
Key crops are cassava (yucca), citrus including grapefruit and oranges, coffee, potatoes, rice, sugar, tobacco and plantains.
In 2015, U.S. Rep. Kurt Schrader, D-Ore., traveled to Cuba with Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack.
Schrader noted that his grandmother had emigrated from Cuba and he was interested in learning how the Cuban government has treated Cuban-Americans.
He reported being "welcomed by a warm people who didn't seem to harp on the embargo and the apparent effect it's had on the Cuban economy."
Schrader said there has been little new construction in Havana since the 1950s, people subsist on about $24 in income each month and that unemployment is high, especially among young people.
He said Cubans appeared interested in Oregon fruits such as pears and apples and other Northwest produce.
Schrader said there is great opportunity to help Cuban farmers modernize their operations with modern irrigation systems and newer farm equipment.
Schrader said the U.S. can also learn a lot from Cuban farmers, who are well-versed on organic farming since agricultural chemicals were on the embargoed list.
Importing organic goods from Cuba could help meet domestic organic food needs, Schrader said.