WASHINGTON, April 20, 2016 - Four Cuban officials are traveling through the U.S. this week, getting their first look at grain production from field to port and meeting with commodity and political leaders along the way.

On Tuesday, the delegation traveled around the Cordova, Maryland, farm of Chip Councell, who currently serves as the vice chairman of the U.S. Grains Council. While seasonal constraints prevented the delegation from seeing much field activity, Councell showed the group his equipment, his storage facilities, a neighbor planting corn in a nearby field, and a grain elevator - while being peppered with questions that required constant translation and, sometimes, conversions from acres to hectares and bushels to tons.

Councell answered every one of them, all the while keeping an eager smile on his face, almost as if he was begging the officials to keep asking. That was rarely an issue, as the officials – two from the government’s food purchasing company and one each from the agriculture and international trade ministries – had questions ranging from field inputs and machinery to crop insurance and grain storage.

“I think this is probably one of the most exciting things that I’ve seen happen in recent history,” as a Grains Council board member and farmer, Councell said. “I think it’s helpful for them as a buyer to understand the system, the logistics of how we work.”

Councell said the delegation appeared to be amazed with the precision, quality control, and technology at play in U.S. agriculture. Enrique Valdés Cárdenas, who is with Cuba’s Ministry of International Trade, told Agri-Pulse through an interpreter that he also noticed differences in access to credit and the overall “very impressive” yields and production he saw on the tour.

Cárdenas also expressed a sentiment often voiced by trade delegations that travel from the U.S. to Cuba: the trip is about building relationships and preparing for trade that could be expanded in the event that the half-century-old U.S. trade embargo is lifted.

“The best experience (of the trip) so far is to be here visiting the fields, getting to know the farmers, knowing their techniques, their equipment, and really getting in touch with their way of life,” Cárdenas said through a translator, in this case, Luis Bustamante, a marketing specialist with the Grains Council in Colombia. 

Those relationships could come in handy not just for Cubans, but also for Americans looking to send products to Cuba’s hungry shores, just 90 miles off the Florida coast. As Cárdenas put it, “people from Cuba do not just need food, they need high quality food that meets their standards. They don’t privilege any (country of) origin over any other.”

The Cubans are packing in plenty of visits during their weeklong trip. On Monday, they met with government and commodity group officials in Washington. On Tuesday, they saw the production side ranging from planting and storage to marketing and sales. Later this week, they travel to St. Louis and New Orleans to examine other steps in the export process. Tom Sleight, president and CEO of the Grains Council, told Agri-Pulse that continuing the discussion started on this trip will be critical.

“What’s the best follow-up activity? That’s the most important thing,” Sleight said. “Is it on grain contracting, is it on market information, is it on transportation systems? The next activity, that’s where we can start drilling down.”

“The U.S. has been shipping grain and soybeans to Cuba regularly for the last 15 years, it’s just (trying to figure out) our market share,” he continued. “And our market share depends on how competitive we can be, given the extra hoops that Cuba has to buy through in terms of financing and things like that.”

For both parties to get the maximum result from the relationships built and lessons learned on the trip, Congress will have to lift the trade embargo with Cuba. Sleight said the issue is “very quiet” in the halls of Congress right now, but he hopes to see some action after the election.


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