Texas agriculture forging financial friendship with Cuba

Exporting food and other agricultural products to Cuba could bring some $57 million to Texas farmers and result in 1,500 new jobs, according to representatives of the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance.

Members of the alliance, including ranchers, farmers, Texas Department of Agriculture representatives and experts on international trade met in San Antonio for the “Exporting to Cuba” conference.

Topics during this conference, which was co-sponsored by the Free Trade Alliance and Texas AgriLife Extension Service, included changes in the Cuban political system, opportunities for food and agricultural trade, and how the export process works.

“The growing Cuban tourism industry bolstering their domestic economy and the weaker dollar are leading to U.S. agricultural goods being more affordable,” said Dr. Parr Rosson, an AgriLife Extension agricultural economist.

Corn, soybean meal and oil, and frozen chickens and chicken parts are among the top U.S. agricultural products Cubans currently are seeking, said Rosson, who is director for the Center for North American Studies at Texas A&M University in College Station.

Rosson said though trade sanctions with Cuba remain, the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000 has allowed for the export of such foods and other agricultural products to Cuba.

According to data from the Center for North American Studies, the economic impact of Texas agricultural exports to Cuba from December 2001 to December 2006 was $133.8 million in business activity and $32 million in income. In addition, trade with Cuba over this period produced 358 jobs for the state.

“Cuba has grown in importance as a market for U.S. agricultural products,” Rosson noted in his presentation to conference attendees. “It is the top grain market in the Caribbean and has good potential for consumer-ready foods.”

“Doing business with Cuba is desirable for Texans because U.S. vendors are paid cash in advance for their products,” said Cynthia Thomas, president of the Texas-Cuba Trade Alliance and Dallas-based TriDimension Strategies LLC.

Thomas added that with rising transportation costs, the relative closeness of Texas makes it a more appealing location for Cuban buyers to purchase their agricultural products.

Interest in doing business with Cuba reached a new level in late May when Texas Agriculture Commissioner Todd Staples led a delegation of 24 farmers, ranchers, agricultural producers, suppliers and others on a trade mission there, said Rosson, who was among the delegation.

“We met with Cuban import and agriculture officials, as well as visited Cuban farms, food markets, a cattle operation and a grocery store,” Rosson said.

According to the Texas Department of Agriculture, the trip has already led to contracts for Cuba to purchase Texas cotton, and there are deals for buying other agricultural products produced in the Lone Star State.

“Cuba needs good-quality agricultural products,” Staples said. “Texas farmers and ranchers produce the best food in the world and it just makes sense for our state to help feed the Cuban people.”

Most in the Texas delegation visited Cuba to investigate the potential for selling more well-known agricultural products such beef, grains and produce. Others went to investigate the possibility of a market in Cuba for less traditional agricultural products.

“I went to Cuba to see if there would be a possibility for selling some of the products we produce,” said Karen Provost, who owns the Wimberley Lavender Farm. “We'd like to sell the Cubans small boutique-size bath products, like our lavender soap. We also have body gels and lavender-scented spray misters.”

Provost says Cuba currently only has a limited number of “commercial, mass-produced” soaps and related bath products, but that its growing tourism industry provides an opportunity for a more upscale product.

“There are a lot of Canadian and European tourists who come to Cuba,” said Provost. “I can see where products like ours would have a market, especially at the better shops and hotels there.”

Provost said once she has completed her export documentation, in addition to getting her required business license, she plans to return to Cuba to make contacts with more potential buyers.

“We have a lot of lavender farms in Texas, so this is a good fit for it being a Texas-grown agricultural product for export to Cuba,” said Provost.”

Currently, the Texas Department of Agriculture is planning another trade mission to Cuba in November and the Free Trade Alliance has one slated for the first quarter of 2009, said Thomas, who coordinated the May trade mission.

“There's a lot of interest in doing business with Cuba, and more and more people in Texas and throughout the U.S. are seeing the potential in Cuba as a future market for their agricultural products,” she said.

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