Idaho farm groups join national effort to end trade ban on Cuba

Capital Press

By: Sean Ellis

Major Idaho farm groups have thrown their support behind a national effort that seeks to convince Congress to end trade and travel bans on Cuba.

Doing that could open the door to significant export opportunities for several Idaho agricultural products, leaders of that effort said July 7 during a press conference to introduce the new Engage Cuba Idaho State Council.

The 29-member council includes a large number of people involved in the state’s agricultural industry, including the leaders of major Idaho farm organizations. It is chaired by Gov. Butch Otter, a rancher and farmer.

“There are real obstacles to letting American farmers compete on an equal footing in Cuba with their counterparts around the world,” Luke Albee, senior adviser of the Engage Cuba Coalition, told Capital Press after the press briefing. “That’s one of the reasons the Cubans have been buying rice from Vietnam and Brazil rather than from Mississippi and Arkansas.”

One of the main obstacles is that U.S. companies and farmers that want to sell farm products to Cuba must accept only cash and cannot extend credit, he said.

Another U.S. policy bars ships that have docked in Cuba from docking in the United States for 120 days.

And while Cuba requires a veterinarian to inspect beef carcasses at stock yards and slaughter houses before they’re shipped to that nation, the U.S. government doesn’t allow Cuban veterinarians to come here.

The Engage Cuba Coalition, which has 11 state councils, includes private companies and organizations that are trying to build enough support to convince Congress to end this country’s trade and travel bans on Cuba.

Press conference speakers said Idaho produces a lot of farm commodities that could benefit from freer trade with Cuba, including milk powder, beef, frozen potato products, wine, pulse crops, vegetable seed and malt.

“It’s really quite a match-up when you look at what Cuba imports and what Idaho produces,” said Skip Oppenheimer, CEO of Oppenheimer Companies Inc., a food processing and distribution company.

State Sen. Jim Patrick, a farmer from Twin Falls and member of the Engage Cuba Idaho Council, said Cuba used to be the No. 1 purchaser of Idaho small red beans before the U.S. trade embargo.

“For some commodities, Cuba would be a big opportunity,” he said.

Milk Producers of Idaho Executive Director Brent Olmstead said powdered milk and cheese would probably be the most promising dairy export possibilities to Cuba.

Albee said Engage Cuba has made significant progress since it began lobbying Congress last fall.

“My guess is that we may get something done on agriculture by the end of the year, if possible,” he said. “But if not by then, the writing’s on the wall. We’ve won the war.”

Cuba, a nation of 11 million people, is fast becoming one of the world’s top tourist destinations, according to an Engage Cuba fact sheet, and “lifting the travel ban will strengthen Cuba’s economy and create a massive new market for U.S. agriculture and food producers.”