Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Illinois Farm Bureau Explores Cuba Market

Zumwalt/FB explore new ag markets in Cuba

To many, the island of Cuba represents suspicious feelings of Cold War propaganda or a missile crisis that fortunately never came to pass, but for members of the Illinois Farm Bureau Cuba represents opportunity.

Joe Zumwalt, of Warsaw, recently joined 20 other members of the Illinois Farm Bureau (IFB) on a sponsored market study tour to Cuba.

With forward thinking initiatives and aggressive research the IFB is looking to create avenues into the Cuban market that will be beneficial to both Cuban agrarian societies and the Illinois farmer alike.

"Our goal was to improve relations between the US and Cuba and hope to encourage the easing of sanctions between the countries," said Zumwalt. "We hope that it encourages a trade relationship, but also that it energizes a change in our current economic policies which heavily sanction and disable the nation of Cuba.

"Many of the policies which are still in place today were designed and implemented in a volatile Cold War environment which no longer exist today. Cuba is not a threat and they are a hungry nation. It is vital that we reopen relations with a nation that only lies 70 miles from our border."

On the visit, the farmers focused on meeting with multiple Cuban farming cooperatives, many of which have up to a thousand farmers to maintain production. Because of the poor economic situation in Cuba, land plots are small and the majority of the work is done by hand or on outdated equipment. While small yields reflect that issue, Zumwalt takes a larger approach to Cuba's agricultural importance.

"While Cuba is not a huge market in the grand scheme of things, their proximity to the US is key," Zumwalt said. "We simply cannot afford to let our competitors such as Brazil and Argentina sell to neighbors goods which we could be supplying within a shorter trade route. Illinois, with its setting along the Mississippi River and its perfectly situated trade route would greatly benefit from increased trade and decreased embargo restrictions."

The trade embargo between the United States and Cuba severely limits almost all exchanging of goods, but one exemption to the embargo is the trade of food, and Zumwalt feels within that exemption lies an opportunity for Illinois farmers.

"While food products are allowed to be imported to Cuba, trade restrictions are stricter than they are with most other nations," said Zumwalt. "If those were eased, the US could see greater trade between the two neighboring nations and thus see better markets for our agricultural products."

One of the perks of the trip was for traveling members to see a country which spent so many years hidden behind a wall so to speak. The Unites States' interactions with Cuba halted in the 1950's, and in many ways time has stood still for Cuba from that moment on. Cuba found luxury goods through trade with other countries, and the American fingerprint is largely absent.

Zumwalt jokes that it is true in Cuba you will find the world's best supply of 1940's and 1950's Chevy's and Ford's, and you will also see new Honda's and Toyota's alongside rickshaws and carts. The economic disparity between a developed country and Cuba is tangible, and their ability to keep going amazed Zumwalt.

"It is a country which has been severely economically impacted by many situations like the US embargo, the fall of communism, the fall of the price of sugar, and now the fall of the dictatorship in Venezuela," said Zumwalt. "The people and their perseverance and their capability to change and adapt to the necessity of the Cuban situation amazed me."

Despite Cuba not being the most accessible of countries, the IFB is hoping to change that moving forward. Given Cuba's proximity to the US and Illinois farmer's proximity to the Mississippi as a route, there are numerous logistical benefits for both nations.

"The US can deliver goods and services in a fraction of the time which our South American neighbors could," said Zumwalt. "Our governor has mentioned many times how important trade is within our state. Cuba should be a high priority for states situated along the Mississippi River."

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