Posted April 21, 2015
A Kansas farmer was called upon by the United States Senate Committee on Agriculture, Nutrition and Forestry, to testify on the opportunities and challenges for trade with Cuba.
The committee is chaired by Pat Roberts from Kansas, the first to chair both the Senate and House of Representative's respective committees on agriculture. Keesling testified in front of the committee on April 21, 2015, and discussed the potential that he, and the nearly 100 other members of the USACC delegation, saw in Cuban trade.
"We had the opportunity to hear from Cuban government officials and speak with Cuban farmers," said Keesling. "We are certainly interested in selling our products to Cuba, but we were also there to learn and to help break down the wall that has separated the people in our two countries for so long."
Cuba is the largest country in the Caribbean by area and population. Wheat and rice are both staples of the Cuban diet, though only rice is produced domestically. There are 11 million people on the island, but its population is growing very slowly. The opportunities for increased wheat consumption are limited, unless population growth accelerates or the tourism sector takes off.
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."
Keesling testified that for Cuba to become a successful export market for U.S. farmers, regulatory obstacles must be repealed. While under the current embargo, regulations allow for agricultural exports to Cuba, they are full of red tape and expenses for Cuban businesses to deal with. But Cubans aren't going hungry; instead they are purchasing their imports from competitors like Canada and Europe.
"It doesn’t make any sense to me that if somebody wants to buy the wheat I grow, they have to jump through all sorts of hoops imposed by our government," said Keesling. "I would suggest that Congress carefully consider if there is a compelling, practical reason to restrict the freedom of Americans to engage in commerce, especially for those who are just trying to sell wholesome, American-grown food.