Vilsack Hosts Cuban Agricultural Officials in Iowa

Jun 10, 2016  | 6 min  | Ep4142 | Transcript

Cuba lies ninety miles south of the United States. Despite a nearly six-decade-old embargo, trade relations have tempered somewhat over the past 15 years allowing for the export of a few American products.

Last November, a U.S. agricultural delegation travelled to Cuba as part of an effort to remove the last barriers to trade. In exchange, high-ranking Cuban officials were invited to visit the U.S..

And recently, Secretary Vilsack made good on his end of the bargain -- hosting Cuba’s Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rullero.

Josh Buettner explains.


Sec. Tom Vilsack/USDA:  “We have a tremendous opportunity in Cuba to expand exports of soybeans, rice and poultry at some point.  They in turn have a tremendous opportunity to import into the U.S. organic production – high value-added opportunity.  Trade must be a two way street.”

Last week USDA chief Tom Vilsack hosted a Cuban agricultural delegation in his home state of Iowa.  The historic event gave the group a glimpse into agribusiness diversity in a region that leads the U.S. in several farm production sectors.

Sec. Tom Vilsack/USDA:  “The ambassador wanted this guy to go to Virginia.  I said no – he’s comin’ to Iowa.”

The reciprocal visit follows the first American presidential trip to the Caribbean island nation since 1928.  There both countries signed a Memorandum of Understanding to collaborate on agricultural research and ideas.

In Iowa, dignitaries saw a high-tech greenhouse at seed giant DuPont Pioneer, where staff stressed the importance of research and genetics for improved yields.  In the past, Cuba has been relatively isolated from crop technologies like genetically modified seeds. 

But a stopover at fifth-generation farmer Aaron Lehman’s organic operation offered one way Cuba’s farmers could use past seclusion to their advantage.

Aaron Lehman/Polk City, Iowa: “If we have a certified organic crop, we will typically receive an extra 50 percent to even 200 percent for each bushel we produce.”

Lehman has been converting some of his farm’s conventional acreage to organic over the past decade.  And while the three-year regulatory transition period can come with a financial pinch, a steady 15% annual increase in U.S. demand for organic products makes the move worthwhile.

Sec. Tom Vilsack/USDA:  “The reality is there are not a lot of families like Aaron’s.  So we are having to import.”

But relations with the Communist nation are still subject to a U.S. embargo which has been in place since 1962.  Obama has called the law a relic of the Cold War, but the chief executive is legally powerless to cut trade sanctions. 

As lawmakers contemplate the issue on their own timetable, Vilsack says USDA has authorized the use of commodity checkoff dollars for education and training to continue momentum.

Sec. Tom Vilsack/USDA:  “I’m optimistic and hopeful that Congress will at some point in time lift the embargo.”

Since 2001, a diplomatic defrost has allowed limited U.S. farm and food exports to Cuba, but the market is volatile.  According to the U.S.- Cuba Trade and Economic Council, agricultural shipments to Cuba peaked in 2008 at $700 million.  Meager by comparison, 2015’s $170 million total has been attributed to uncertainty and increased global competition.    

Voice offscreen:  “That’s 20 years old?”

Aaron Lehman/Polk City, Iowa: “Yeah.  We try to take care of it…”

Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero/Agricultural Minister - Cuba(in Spanish): “50 years!”

Sec. Tom Vilsack/USDA:  “50 years.     They know how to take care of a tractor.”

U.S. officials say untangling credit barriers would allow Cubans to purchase new items like American tractors, many of which they currently own are as long in the tooth as the island’s well-known classic cars.

Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero/Cuban Agriculture Minister: “We believe there are many areas of agriculture in which we have common views…and what is left to be done is deepen our collaboration.”

Cuba’s Agricultural Minister echoed the sentiments of his American counterpart both on the farm and at Iowa State University, as the delegation explored the institution’s commitment to research and business growth - while educating the next generation of farm leaders.

A culmination of knowledge and discipline rounded out the groundbreaking day at a nearby ethanol plant.   Lincolnway Energy board members explained how Iowa’s biofuel production model creates multiple use products, jobs in rural areas, and helps the auto industry comply with mandates on fuel economy.

Bill Couser/Lincolnway Energy Board of Directors: “We’ve used this corn, just like a barrel of crude.  We take it apart, and we have food and fuel.”

Sec. Tom Vilsack/USDA:  “And the best way to get to higher octane fuels is blending more of that.”

While USDA lays the groundwork for robust agricultural trade with Cuba, critics contend the former U.S. adversary has a plethora of other issues to iron out before normalized relations are fully realized.

Sec. Tom Vilsack/USDA:  “There will always be differences but they don’t necessarily have to prevent us from having a relationship. Abraham Lincoln once said that the best way to eliminate an enemy is to make a friend.  I don’t know of anything more powerful in making friendships and eliminating past challenges than agriculture.”

For Market to Market, I’m Josh Buettner.

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