West-central Illinois farmer Todd Gail returned from a weeklong trip to Cuba in 2015 with firsthand accounts of the demand for U.S. agricultural products and expertise.
“There are opportunities there,” said Gail, whose family operates a multi-generation hog and grain farm near Moline.
Gail was the pork representative with a trade delegation of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. The delegation met with representatives of the Cuban government and trade officials, and visited farm cooperatives. Gail said there also was time for one-on-one discussions with individual Cubans, including a handful of farmers who raised pigs for their own consumption.
“Their production methods are a couple of decades behind ours, and their pork doesn’t meet our quality,” Gail said. “Everyone was very friendly. They’d like to see more opportunities. There seemed to be a younger population that really wanted to make changes.
“They’re also very interested in tourism. They want to feed tourists a better-quality product in hotels and restaurants.”
Illinois agricultural groups say the recent Trump administration decision to restore travel and trade restrictions that were eased under the Obama administration will have little short-term effect on minimal Illinois exports to Cuba. But they warn the long-term effect will make it more difficult to compete with nations that do sell to Cuba.
“We sell mostly soybeans these days,” said Adam Nielsen, director of national legislation and policy development for the Illinois Farm Bureau. “There is great potential there, and this (Trump administration policy) doesn’t help.”
Farm groups have generally supported Trump administration moves to roll back federal regulations, including last week’s announcement it would seek to repeal the controversial Waters of the United States environmental rule. Agriculture organizations strongly opposed the Obama-era regulation as federal government interference in day-to-day farm operations.
Trump administration policies on trade have had less-favorable reviews.
“We’ve seen ag exports to Cuba slow to a trickle in the last seven years. Obama normalized relationships. This is a bit of a step backward,” said Nielsen, who has twice been to Cuba as part of agricultural trade delegations.
Exports of U.S. products to Cuba totaled $180 million in 2015, according to the U.S. Trade Representative office, down 40 percent from 2014 and 51 percent from 2005.
In announcing the new restrictions, the Trump administration argued U.S. trade and travel mostly rewards a repressive Cuban government. Policy opponents said both are the best way to open up the government.
“There are a lot of repressive regimes, like China, and we do quite a bit of business with them. They just don’t happen to be this close to us,” Nielsen said. “People have long memories on Cuba, and for good reason.”
Allowing Cuba to make purchases on credit also would be a big step toward opening the country to U.S. exports, according to farm organizations.
Canada exports 8,000 metric tons of pork annually to Cuba, while exports from Europe total more than 4,000 metric tons, according to federal trade data. Sales of U.S. pork total only about 1.6 metric tons a year.
“People don’t realize the U.S. does export pork to Cuba,” said Jennifer Tirey, executive director of the Illinois Pork Producers. “We think there’s an opportunity there for us to take a larger role.”
Tirey said the timing of the Trump administration policy is important as U.S. pork production steps up to meet increased domestic and overseas demand.
“We know marketing pork to Cuba is going to be a challenge,” Tirey said. “We don’t want to see that progress go back.”