Bayou City Broadcasting: Louisiana rice producers join over 60 groups to support Farm Bill Cuba Provision

Today, Louisiana rice producers, including the Louisiana Rice Promotion Council and Kennedy Rice, joined a bipartisan group of over 60 agriculture associations, businesses, and elected officials across 17 states in urging House and Senate Agriculture Committees to include a provision in the 2018 farm bill that the Congressional Budget Office determined would save $690 million over 10 years. The suggested amendment, adapted from the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act (H.R. 525), would expand agricultural trade with Cuba by removing restrictions on private financing for U.S. food exports. The letter also urges lawmakers to preserve a Senate provision that allows farmers to use federal market promotion funds in Cuba.

“We urge you to support American agriculture by advancing legislation that will make Cuba a viable market for our products,” the groups said. “Net farm income in 2018 has hit a 12-year low, falling further than during the Great Recession of last decade. This economic strain is felt by everyone in the industry, particularly the thousands of small, family-owned farms in the American heartland. Given this year’s 6.7 percent market decline, we cannot overstate the importance of trade and opening new international markets.” 

Many of Louisiana’s top agricultural products, such as rice, soybeans, and poultry, are staple imports for Cuba. Cuba has the highest per capita rice consumption in the Western Hemisphere, and Louisiana is the nation’s third-largest rice producer. The island imports $141 million annually in soybeans, which are Louisiana’s most valuable export. 

Currently, U.S. sales of agricultural products to Cuba are limited to cash transactions, causing Cuba to primarily turn to Europe, Latin America, and Asia for nearly $2 billion per year in agricultural imports. Cuba imports roughly 80% of its food and has a population of 11 million, plus an influx of 3-5 million tourists annually. U.S. agriculture groups want to reclaim some of that market share.

“Our current Cuba trade financing laws deny our farmers access to a market valued at over $1 billion per year. I appreciate Senator Boozman and Senator Heitkamp’s work to include Cuba Agricultural trade language in the Senate version of the Farm Bill and I look forward to working to replace the current cash-for-crop requirements,” said Rep. Rick Crawford (R-AR-1), the lead sponsor of the Cuba Agricultural Exports Act and a participant in the farm bill conference committee.

“Today farm country is filled with uncertainty. Passing a Farm Bill is paramount, but in doing so we must look ahead and support mutually beneficial economic opportunities, like those in Cuba,” said Rep. Roger Marshall (R-KS-1), a cosponsor of H.R. 525. “While we are renegotiating our trade deals, we have a $2 billion market untouched right under our nose.”

“Our farmers don’t want handouts. They know if they can compete with the rest of the world they can win,” said James Williams, President of Engage Cuba. “There is no reason why the Cuban people shouldn’t be eating American rice and dairy instead of importing it from Vietnam and New Zealand.”

The Senate’s version of the farm bill already includes an amendment by Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND) which would allow U.S. agricultural producers to spend U.S. Department of Agriculture market promotion funds on marketing to Cuba.

“The United States has just five percent of the world’s population, which means 95 percent of consumers live outside our borders. If we aren’t constantly working to open markets and reach new customers, American farmers and workers won’t be competitive on the global stage. That’s why it’s so important for U.S. farmers and ranchers to gain access to markets like Cuba, where there is demand for American agricultural products,” said Senator Heidi Heitkamp (D-ND). 

“My bipartisan amendment would give USDA the ability to build reliable trade partnerships between U.S. producers and Cuban buyers, strengthening our ag economy and finally removing outdated barriers to selling our products to consumers in a nation that sits just off our coastline. It would also help boost North Dakota’s farmers during a time of serious uncertainty from the administration’s trade policies,” she said. 

To become law, both provisions must be approved by the bicameral conference committee, which convened officially for the first time on Wednesday.

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