Word on Wheat: 90 Miles Away But Out of Reach for Growers

April 17, 2009 Bookmark and Share

Jerry McReynolds, NAWG First Vice President

Let me tell you about the height of absurdity.

Cuba, an island nation 90 miles from U.S. soil with a population of more than 11 million, is the largest importer of wheat and wheat products in the Caribbean. U.S. wheat growers are abundant producers of many types of wheat, and we export half the wheat we grow in a typical year. Yet, we have a less than 50 percent market share in Cuba, versus a more than 75 percent market share in other Caribbean areas, due to restrictions on travel between the countries and overly burdensome financing rules that won’t allow payments to go directly from Cuba to American banks.

Rather than coming to us for their wheat, Cuba frequently imports it from far-away suppliers like the European Union, Canada and Argentina, at increased shipping cost to them – and a cost to the U.S. wheat industry of more than $40 million per year.

The U.S. wheat industry has long believed the best way to help U.S. wheat growers fully realize sales potential in Cuba is to overturn a change made in 2005 to financing requirements and to lift travel restrictions to allow for the freedom of reciprocal travel between the U.S. and Cuba for all citizens.

Fortunately for American growers and the Cuban people, there’s more hope now that these changes will be made than perhaps ever before.

Many bills have been introduced to clarify the payment rules and ease travel restrictions hamstringing U.S.-Cuba wheat trade. One of them, Agricultural Export Facilitation Act of 2009 (H.R. 1737), focuses on mitigating the effects the agriculture community is feeling and was introduced by one of my home-state guys, Rep. Jerry Moran, a longtime supporter of more open trade with Cuba.

Language on travel and financing was recently passed by Congress in the 2009 omnibus spending bill, which is a coup after many years of it being included and then removed before the bill was approved. While many were disappointed by a written statement from Treasury Secretary Geithner discounting the effect of this language, President Obama’s announcement just this week that the Administration will ease travel and remittance restrictions for Cuban Americans gives us hope that there will ultimately be more changes in Cuba policy.

My daughter and I have been to Cuba and have seen the situation first-hand. We found the people very warm and open with us, eager to visit about life in the U.S. We also saw that Cuban producers lack the tools, equipment and supplies needed to produce food. Their planting and harvesting equipment is very old and in need of repair. Instead, they cultivate small gardens by hand and keep oxen for use in larger fields.

Traveling with a small group of Kansas wheat producers, we also met with Pedro Alvarez, the head of Cuba’s food import company. He was ready and willing to sign an agreement to buy wheat, but our U.S. policy prevented that from happening.

U.S. wheat growers rely on the ability to open and expand international markets. And, from what I saw, the people of Cuba need our wheat and want an open relationship with the U.S. But without some significant policy changes, this relationship can’t be properly nurtured.

They say crazy is doing the same thing over and over and hoping for a different result. The embargo is almost 50 years old and hasn’t yet had the desired effect. In the meantime, we are losing sales and are keeping the Cuban people from being able to access our high-quality food supply, which I believe to be the opposite of humanitarian action.

The time for change on this policy has come.

– McReynolds is a wheat producer in Woodston, Kan.