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North Dakota ag trade delegation travels to Cuba

North Dakota ag trade delegation travels to Cuba

BISMARCK: In late October a delegation of agriculture representatives from North Dakota traveled to Cuba on a mission to establish trade relationships.

The group, led by North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring, were in Cuba from Oct. 25-28, and included representatives from several commodity groups and agricultural organizations. One of those making the trip was Mark Formo, president of the N.D. Grain Growers Association and a farmer from Litchville.

“One of the main purposes of the trip was to bring some of the actual producers of the commodities down to Cuba so we had a chance to visit with some of the main importers,” Formo said. “We wanted to promote the fact that we have good quality products and North Dakota farmers take pride in what we produce.

“We wanted to be proactive rather than try to catch up when all of a sudden this trade thing gets settled. We wanted to find out what they wanted from us in North Dakota to get this going.”

Formo’s comments mirrored some of what Goehring said during a news conference that was held after the group returned from Cuba.

“Reengaging with Cuba is an important part of building and keeping relationships,” Goehring said. “Cuba has goals and a vision for their country, and we can build on that mission.”

According to Goehring, Cuba produces 40 percent of their caloric needs, but imports 80 percent to meet all food consumption in Cuba (i.e. tourism). A couple of their largest imports include cereal crops and beans.

In an effort to assess some of their agricultural needs Formo said they met with a number of country officials and important agencies, in addition to private business owners.

“When we flew in you could definitely see there is agriculture, but so much of it depends on hand labor,” Formo said. “We were in one of what was supposed to be their largest grocery stores and the shelves had hardly (anything) on them. And the people get ration cards for food and they get a card every month. The food shortage is quite noticeable.”

Cuba is hoping to expand their tourist trade, Formo noted, and a larger food supply will be necessary to accommodate that increase in tourism. At this time rice and beans are the biggest part of the Cuban diet, but they will need more wheat products and other ag commodities to support a tourism industry.

Most of the restaurants are government owned right now, but more are getting privatized.

“This is the first thing they are privatizing,” Formo said, “and we were at two different restaurants owned by private citizens and the food we had at any restaurant was outstanding.”

The group also had a chance to visit a food co-op where farmers bring in truckloads of various commodities such as peppers, onions, beans, bananas or whatever is grown on the farms around the area. The buyers then barter on whatever they are looking for.

In the group’s tour of the island, it was apparent ag technology was really lacking and that is holding back the increase in agricultural production.

“North Dakota has the opportunity to share and exchange ideas and information, as well as interest in our high-quality commodities,” Goehring said. “The goal is not to displace food in their food system, but to incorporate our products to enhance it with quality and nutritional value.”

And it isn’t only modern ag equipment that is lacking. Formo told of all the Chevrolet cars from the 1960s on the streets, but they all now have diesel engines. That’s because the regular gasoline engines have long ago been junked and replaced with diesel engines from later Russian models.

In the case of the Russian cars, the diesel engines have run for a long time, but the bodies deteriorated and now there is a combination of an American car or truck body coupled with a Russian diesel engine.

“I really think that if they can work on the trade agreement and get things ironed out with our federal government, the possibilities there are really good for expanding trade,” Formo said. “We had an interpreter down there and she said if this embargo would ever get lifted, the chances (for exports) down there would be unbelievable.”

Goehring added that the mission was an opportunity to focus on relationships, food security and economic security. Future objectives include inviting a Cuban delegation to visit and experience North Dakota agriculture.