WASHINGTON, D.C. – Chairman of the Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, recently held a hearing on opportunities and challenges for agriculture trade with Cuba. Fifth generation wheat farmer Doug Keesling of Chase offered testimony of support.
Kansas Wheat Commissioner Keesling testified in front of the committee Monday in Washington, D.C., and discussed the potential that he, and the nearly 100 other members of the USACC delegation, saw in Cuban trade. The committee is chaired by Pat Roberts from Kansas.
Keesling was one of four Kansans that represented Kansas and the Kansas Department of Agriculture on a four-day learning journey to Cuba. Other Kansans traveling to Cuba included Steve Baccus, representing KDA; Nina Lilja, Associate Dean of International Agriculture Programs for the College of Agriculture, and Jaret Moyer, representing the Kansas Livestock Association. They were a part of a larger group sponsored by the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba (USACC).
Bringing an end to the decades-old embargo holds potential to provide access to a new market for U.S. producers, including Kansas beef, wheat and farm equipment as well as other products.
“From what I could see, there is a lot of potential in Cuba. As a Kansas wheat farmer, that potential was obvious every time a meal included bread. Cubans eat a lot of bread, and are the largest wheat importer in the Caribbean, nearly 30 million bushels imported per year,” Keesling said. “That would be over 10 percent of all the wheat grown in Kansas, going to this one island just a couple days sail from U.S. ports.”
It has been estimated that wheat imports from the United States have an upward potential of the entire 30 million bushels currently imported by Cuba. That’s because today Cubans buy no wheat from the United States. The state-owned grain buyer, Alimport, buys almost all their wheat from Canada and Europe, even though Cuba is much closer to U.S. gulf ports. That’s a $200 million opportunity that is missed by the U.S. wheat industry every year. Based on USDA Economic Research Service models, those additional exports could put nearly 2,000 people to work, and that’s just for wheat.
“Now that Cuba is allowing increased investment by the private sector, we can expect the sophistication of the Cuban flour milling, processing, and retail segments to improve, which could lead to even more imports in the future,” Keesling said. “But if current policies continue, those imports will not be products raised by American farmers.”
During the visit from March 1-4, representatives of USACC met with officials of the Cuban government and learned about initiatives being undertaken in Cuba to boost food production. Today’s Senate Agriculture hearing further strengthened the case and opportunities for Kansas Agriculture, although noted that significant challenges exist as these markets are developed.
Kansas Secretary of Agriculture Jackie McClaskey said that growing opportunities for the Kansas agriculture industry is one of the core missions for the agency and that Cuba is a market that deserves consideration. “Kansas farmers and ranchers produce some of the best beef and pork in the world and our wheat and feed grains are sought out around the globe. It makes sense that we should be looking to add new trading partners.”
Steve Baccus participated in the trade mission on behalf of KDA. Baccus has traveled to Cuba on several occasions and noted that this trip was considerably less monitored by the Cuban government and the officials and farms they visited could freely answer questions.
“The changes that I saw this trip in the functioning of the economy and the way the government carries out their affairs were simply outstanding,” Baccus said. “There is more freedom in Cuba and the decision making process has moved closer to the people. There is also tremendous potential for Kansas farm products.” Baccus last visit to Cuba was nine years ago.