Shore growers play role in wooing Cuban trade officials

Managing Editor

CORDOVA, Md. (April 26, 2016) — A delegation of Cuban trade officials got an in-depth look at U.S. grain production last week which and toured Maryland farms.
Led by Chip Councell, the group visited two grain farms and Nagel Farm Service’s grain elevator in Cordova.
They also visited with Perdue Agribusiness representatives in Salisbury, Md., before leaving the state to visit export terminals in St. Louis and New Orleans. The week-long visit was an effort to give Cuban grain buyers a better understanding of how grain is grown in the United States and moved from the farm to export locations.
“Basically, the marketing channels, that’s what we want them to see,” said Thomas Sleight, U.S. Grains Council president and CEO.
Following the Obama Administration’s announcement in late 2014 that it would seek to dismantle the 50-year-old restrictions on how companies and individuals interact with Cuba, Sleight said the council reassessed the Cuban market and is working to help mitigate ongoing barriers to grain sales there.
Without being able to visit the United States for years, Sleight said Cuban trade officials were not familiar with the various aspects of grain production and how it moves from farm to export terminals.
“You like to buy something from somebody you know. That’s what we’re trying to do is cross that bridge,” Sleight said. “They’ve just never been able to see that side of things. “Now that our relationship with Cuba is changing, they can come and see our farms and infrastructure firsthand.”.”
Cuba has purchased corn from the United States since the early 2000s, with market share varying widely from as high as 100 percent to just 15 percent more recently, according to the grains council.
However, sales have been stymied in both Cuba and the rest of the region by competition from other sources and the ongoing embargo. If Cuba purchased all of its imported corn from the United States, it would be the 10th largest overseas market for the product.
“That’s significant,” Sleight said. “Especially in times like now when corn prices are down you need every possible market you can find. We can feed a lot of that market from the Mid-Atlantic. It would be a very natural marketplace for us.”
Joe Bartenfelder, Maryland agriculture secretary visited Cuba last November on a trade mission and joined the delegation for part of the trip last week. He said building relationships will hopefully help move more agriculture products to the nearby country.
“We’ve got the doors of trade open and hopefully we’ll have the trade going through those doors with grain and poultry,” he said.
Conversation and questions between the Maryland farmers and Cuban visitors touched on a variety of topics including biotechnology, yields for the area, irrigation use, fertilizer, grain marketing plans and crop insurance.
“Our main objective for this visit is getting to know all of the harvest and crop preparations and functions in the United States,” said Alejandro Cardet Chaveco, vice president of operations for Alimport, Cuba’s procurement agency for agricultural products through an interpreter. “And also open our perspectives about international trade relations among other countries.”
Chaveco said one thing that surprised him for visiting the farms was “the huge technological advances the farmers have in this particular area. They have control of their operations from planting to selling to the end users.”
After a week of interaction and information sharing, Sleight said U.S. Grains officials would have a better understanding of what to follow up on to facilitate more grain exports to Cuba.
“We know what the barriers are. It’s ‘how do we address these issues?,’” Chip Councell added. “We’ll work on the best avenues to address them that can help us move forward.”
Chaveco said his agency has a long relationship with the United States but now has more to share with officials in his country.
“With this visit we will have better knowledge of how grain operations work here in the United States and also we will spread throughout our company the lessons we learned and with our friends in industry,” he said.
While planting corn with his son Travis, Bobby Hutchison, a grain and vegetable grower and longtime leader in Maryland agriculture, stopped to talk with the Cuban visitors. After telling them about his farm and answering their questions, he gave them a simple but pointed message of gratitude and hopefulness.
“Thank you for coming,” Hutchison said. “Buy lots of corn. We’d like to grow it for you.”