Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon wants his state's agriculture industry to be the first knocking on the door to do business with Cuba. The Governor, along with Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Richard Fordyce and agriculture industry leaders, met Thursday for a roundtable discussion on opportunities to expand trade with Cuba.
This past December, less than 48 hours after the President announced his new course to improve relations between the U.S. and Cuba, Nixon met with Fordyce to see how Missouri could capitalize on the initiative.
"We both agreed this was another outstanding opportunity for Missouri's farmers and ranchers to grow their markets, Missouri employers to compete and create jobs, and the great State of Missouri to lead," Nixon said.
Last month, the two men traveled to Washington D.C. to help launch the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which will explore how to maximize the benefits of expanded trade to Cuba. More than 40 U.S. food and agriculture companies and associations are part of the coalition. They are calling on Congress to lift the embargo and allow open trade and investment to occur.
Nixon wants his state to lead the way in discovering trade possibilities with Cuba. So he invited representatives of the poultry, rice, soybean, corn, pork, beef and agribusiness industries to the Missouri Farm Bureau headquarters in Jefferson City to discuss the issue.
Last year, Missouri exported $14 billion in goods. "The world wants what we make and grow right here in Missouri," he said. "We have the most skilled and productive farmers and ranchers in the world. Give them an opportunity to compete and they can win against anyone."
However, farmers and ranchers are not playing on a level field. Greg Yielding, emerging markets specialist for the Missouri Rice Council, financing restrictions are hurting trade relations.
"The U.S. requires that Cuba pays in cash and upfront before product leaves the country," he explained. "It puts us at a disadvantage when they can buy from other countries like Brazil."
Yielding, who leads the Missouri Rice Council and the US Rice Producers' export activities and special projects, explained that the restrictions were put in place because of fear that Cuba would not pay their bills. "But they are paying Brazil, so to me, it is not a problem."
The Governor pointed out that as the U.S. stood down on trade with the communist country, other countries have stepped up. Brazil quadrupled its exports to Cuba, he noted. "We cannot ignore 11 million potential customers for products just 90 miles from our shores," Nixon said. "This is a trade competition that U.S. farmers should and will be winning."
If the embargo is lifted, estimates show that the U.S. could sell $4.3 billion in goods to Cuba annually. Fordyce said that Missouri can capture some of those dollars.
"Missouri's agriculture diversity gives us a real competitive advantage because many of the current imports into Cuba are exactly the things we are growing here in Missouri," he said. Missouri is a leading state in producing corn, soybeans, rice, beef, pork, poultry, apples and wine.
"These same goods are top imports of Cuba," Fordyce added. "Missouri is well-placed to go into the country."
Ready to roll
One commodity he finds "shovel ready" to unearth trade opportunities with Cuba is rice. According to Yielding, Cubans eat 110 pounds of rice per person per year. He said the country eats roughly 500,000 metric tons of rice annually, compared to the United States' 34 pounds per person per year.
"We need to have the opportunity to sell our product," he said. "We need to be the first state down there to build relationships."
Yielding cautioned that the U.S. would need to take into account how trade would affect the local farmers. "We know and they know they can't produce enough to feed themselves," he said, "but we have to be sensitive to how this trade would impact farmers there."
Both the Governor and director said that opening trade with Cuba provides more than economic benefits. "I think America is so advanced in agriculture technology that if we can go there with this technology it will benefit both countries," Fordyce said. "If we can help them with improving their efficiencies, it will help the Cuban people in the long run."
"Lifting these trade barriers is also an opportunity to extend the reach of our democratic values and ideals," Nixon said. "I believe the best way to have an open a peaceful world is to feed people and meet people. This gives us an opportunity as a state right here in the heartland to be a leader on something that people 30 or 40 years ago would not think possible. "
The Governor, director, and members of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba will be traveling to Havana the first week in March. In all, 75 individuals will accompany them on the trade mission, of those, 30 will representing Missouri agribusiness and agriculture commodity interests.