The first wave of U.S. industry into Cuba in 55 years is riding a single-row tractor.
Cuban agriculture is a time capsule. Picture 63,000 dying tractors cobbled with scrapped parts. Groaning U.S. models from the 1940s and 1950s, or more likely decrepit Chinese and Russian beasts that hardly qualify as legacy machinery. Simply, Cuba is a tractor graveyard.
As economic opportunity opens in Cuba, agriculture is poised to be first through the door. Two U.S. businessmen are determined to build the first American-owned factory on Cuban soil since the embargo of 1960. Cleber LLC, headed by Saul Berenthal and Horace Clemmons, will supply single-row tractors to small Cuban farmers often reduced to livestock cultivation.
Born in Cuba, Berenthal left as a 16-year-old during the revolution in 1960. He lived the American dream with a string of business successes with Clemmons. When U.S. relations warmed with Cuba in 2014, Berenthal was waiting for the opportunity. “This project is a business, but it’s also a way to help get the Cuban people out of isolation. Forget government and politics. This is about getting two peoples together and providing a chance for farmers.”
A Reborn Allis-Chalmers Model G
Clemmons, with a farming background from childhood, took Berenthal’s vision and found a machinery fit in the expired patent design of an Allis-Chalmers Model G. Introduced in the 1940s, the G was designed with rear motor placement to provide open visibility. (It looks like a dune buggy or oversized go-kart.) Clemmons boosted the engine technology, changed the transmission, added independent hydrostatic drive transaxles, and upgraded to a category 1 3-point hitch. The model is titled Oggun, the god of metal from Cuba’s Santeria religion.
Cleber has applied for an Oggun patent in order to issue it for free. “This is going to be open-sourced and parts are going to be open to the shelf,” Clemmons says. “We designed the frame so that it can be changed into a skidsteer, excavator, trencher or anything you want. Put tines on and make it a plow or cultivator. The whole point is to keep costs as low as possible and make sure repairs are simple.”
Oggun parts will be made in Alabama and assembled in a Cleber factory at the Cuban port of Mariel. Each Oggun will cost $8,000 to $10,000, an affordable price even for Cuban farmers, according to Berenthal. “The farmers themselves tell us the Oggun is affordable. On the economic scale, Cuban farmers are in the upper middle-class. Plus, relatives in the U.S. will account for remittances, and the government has financing capabilities.”
Farming in Cuba
Approximately 300,000 farmers operate in Cuba, according to Clemmons. The government owns all farmland, but cultivates only 30%. Small farmers work the other 70% in 40- to 60-acre sections. Their crop majority must be sold at government-established prices, but they are permitted to keep 20% to 30% for open market sales. Tourism is creating huge demand and bringing strong prices for produce.
Clemmons hopes to manufacture 1000 Oggun tractors in 2017 and ramp up to 16,000 per year at the Mariel factory. Beyond Cuba, he believes the Oggun will find waiting markets in Latin America, Africa and Asia. “Farmers are desperate for a dependable, affordable tractor,” he explains. “We let countries build economies around Oggun distribution, repair and parts businesses.”
Berenthal and Clemmons are reaching for the opposite of obsolescence. Simple, fixable, dependable and affordable. Why did the Cuban government look past a long line of shiny suitors and give Berenthal and Clemmons the first nod of approval? “We didn’t just offer something to sell like every other company. We offered a real means to build something for people over the long term,” Clemmons says.
Agriculture is a universal language understood by farmers irrespective of country or creed. “We’re the first into Cuba,” Clemmons adds. “My partner Saul is walking on the edge of history and I’m enjoying the journey.”