By Cyara Pinkos, 2019 Summer Intern
Growing up on Isbell Farms in Central Arkansas, rice farmer Mark Isbell has witnessed firsthand the impact of U.S. trade policy on farmers. The U.S. embargo on Cuba has proven to be one of the most frustrating policies for Isbell and his farm.
Isbell joined the Engage Cuba Arkansas State Council after his first trip to Cuba because he wanted to be a part of positive change on the island. His trip with an agricultural trade delegation primarily focused on agriculture opportunities in Cuba, but the visit ended up having a huge impact on Isbell. Isbell explained that before visiting Cuba, he supported U.S.-Cuba engagement mainly because of the growth business trade with Cuba would spur for his farm. However, after he saw Cuba for himself, he reflected most on the unforgettable experience of connecting with the Cuban people and learning how the embargo impacts the quality and price of the food available to Cubans.
Currently, Cuba imports almost $2 billion in food annually and has the highest per capita rice consumption in the Western Hemisphere. According to a 2016 report, if trade restrictions were lifted, Arkansas agriculture sales to Cuba are estimated to hit $51-60 million annually. Most of Cuba’s imports currently come from countries that will extend credit to the island, complicating the supply chain, and requiring imports from countries on the other side of the world. In short, instead of buying rice from Arkansas, Cuba is forced to turn to far-off countries like Vietnam.
The United States, just 90 miles from Cuba, would be a far more practical trading partner. But U.S. producers are shut out of the Cuban market because of the U.S. trade embargo. While agricultural goods are exempt under the embargo and U.S. producers are currently allowed to export their goods to Cuba, they are not permitted to offer financing to Cuban buyers, causing buyers to turn to other countries that are able to offer favorable financing.
There are people on all levels, from farmers to policymakers, working to fix this issue. Isbell has helped garner support for Arkansas Congressman Rick Crawford’s bill to allow U.S. producers to offer agricultural financing to Cuba. Isbell said the bill is fair and thoughtfully addresses one of the main barriers to trade with Cuba in a bipartisan manner. Giving Cuba trade financing options would make business between Isbell Farms and Cuba more attainable. “Even though the ideal outcome would be the complete normalization of relations with Cuba, this bill takes us one step closer to opening up the Cuban market for U.S. farmers,” he said.
Thanks to the work of Congressman Crawford, Isbell, and the other farmers across the nation, the 2018 Farm Bill passed last year with a provision that allows U.S. producers to use federal marketing dollars to advertise their products in Cuba under the USDA grant programs. The funding will allow farmers like Isbell to build relationships with Cuban buyers.
Increasing agricultural exports to Cuba would stimulate growth in the U.S. agriculture industry and provide farmers like Isbell with access to a new market. However, as Isbell points out, normalizing trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba would mean much more than a boom to U.S. farmers. It would also provide the Cuban people with more accessible quality food while fostering positive relationships with the Cuban people.
As a fourth generation rice farmer, Isbell recalled his grandfather, also a farmer, talking about having to face the same barriers to trade with Cuba. Isbell said he hopes he does not have to have the same conversation with his children.