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'Building relationships': North Dakota ag group visits Cuba

North Dakota agriculture leaders visited Cuba recently to make connections and learn about possible future trade opportunities. Special to The Forum1 / 3
Edible beans and wheat, which North Dakota farmers grow, are staples in the Cuban diet. Special to The Forum2 / 3
Cuba is a big potential market for North Dakota growers. Ag leaders from around the state recently visited the country. Special to The Forum3 / 3

BISMARCK – Cuba is a big potential market for North Dakota growers. Recent talks about lifting the trade embargo the United States imposed on Cuba in the 1960s prompted ag leaders from across the state to visit the country recently to make connections and learn about possible future trade opportunities.

Trade with Cuba could mean as much as $40 million a year for North Dakota agriculture, said Mark Formo, a Litchville, N.D., farmer and North Dakota Grain Growers Association president.

"We want to build a relationship and open up pathways for trade," he said.

Formo joined North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Doug Goehring and about a dozen others to meet with Cuban policy officials and visit farms Oct. 25-28.

"I'm encouraged by what we saw and learned," Goehring said.

North Dakota exports 40 plant-based commodities, many of which, like edible beans and wheat, are staples in the Cuban diet, he said.

"It's not about displacing food in their food system as much as it is about incorporating food into their food system to enhance the value, the nutritional value, the shelf life, the texture, the taste," he said. "And they did find that intriguing."

The U.S. had a decades-long ban on trade with communist Cuba. While the trade embargo is still in place, changes the Obama administration announced last winter to begin lowering economic barriers with the country have chipped away at it.

Cuba has had relatively little economic and technological advancement in the past half-century.

Formo said between oxen plowing fields and empty supermarket shelves, visiting Cuba was like "taking a trip back in time."

Even so, Goehring said he saw many subtle changes, including modern yellow taxis, since his last trade mission to Cuba in 2010.

"They're evolving," he said. "There's transformation taking place."

Those changes include small steps toward a free market, said Eric Hardmeyer, Bank of North Dakota president.

He met three Cubans who own restaurants that opened within the past few years. He also went to a farmers market—the first in the country in 40 years.

"It was very rudimentary at its core, but it was the beginning of the free market," he said.

Still, Cuba has little cash to buy imported food, increasing its need for credit, and U.S. growers are prohibited from selling to Cuba on credit. Getting that restriction lifted is a goal for both the Cuban government and many U.S. farm groups.

For now, the Bank of North Dakota has no export programs to help.

"That would take some investigation and working with Congress, the state Industrial Commission," Hardmeyer said. "But if there is a way the Bank of North Dakota can provide an opportunity for exporters to provide products to Cuba, BND would certainly like to play a role in that."

Goehring has invited Cuban officials to North Dakota, but isn't sure when a reverse trade mission might occur.

Formo said he hopes Cuban officials visit to see how our crops are produced.

"That's a great way to start building the relationship," he said.

Officials with Northarvest Bean Growers Association, North Dakota Trade Office and North Dakota Wheat Commission also went on the trip.

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