By Richard Fordyce: Bethany, Missouri
Earlier this year, Missouri-based Martin Rice Company sent a 20-ton container of rice to Cuba—the first shipment of rice from the United States to Cuba in eight years.
It was a donation to a poor country that struggles to feed itself. Yet it also served a commercial hope. We believe that a lot more rice from the Show Me State ought to follow, making the trip down the Mississippi River, across the Gulf of Mexico, and into the deep-water port of Mariel.
Last week’s death of Fidel Castro, the longtime Cuban leader, marks an important moment in the history of Cuba—and it almost certainly represents an opportunity for U.S.-Cuban relations to continue their long thaw.
Two years ago, when President Obama announced that the United States would begin to normalize ties with Cuba, I was at an annual agricultural conference in Missouri. Our governor, Jay Nixon, asked me whether Missouri’s farmers would have an appetite to become, as he put it, “the first into Cuba.”
“Let’s get some feedback,” I said.
Within an hour, after talks with people up and down the food chain, the answer was clear: Missouri farmers want to sell food to Cuba.
Since then, I’ve made two trips to Cuba, both with agricultural delegations, and I’ve learned a lot about a place where, for many years, Americans were forbidden to go.
Critics complain that Cuba isn’t a big export market. With 11 million people, its population is less than twice that of Missouri’s, and most are poor.
Yet the island nation imports at much as 80 percent of its food. Moreover, Cuba is so close to our shores—just 90 miles from Florida—that the transportation costs for us are low. Shipping rice containers from Missouri to Cuba isn’t much different from moving freight between Kansas City and California.
In Missouri, we’d be delighted to capture a portion of the Cuban market. If Cuba imports a total of $2 billion in food, and we supply just 10 percent of it, that’s a $200 million boost to Missouri’s economy.
We’ll take it—and in the future, we aim to ship rice as well as feed, pork, beef, and biofuels.
I’d also like to think that we can do well and do good at the same time.
The “doing well” part is easy to understand, if Missouri farmers gain new customers.
“Doing good” is trickier. Cuba, after all, is a Communist society. It’s still ruled by the Castro regime: Fidel may be gone, but his brother Raoul remains in charge. The Cuban people lack the freedoms that we take for granted. They can’t vote, speak their minds, or practice their faiths.
Yet I’m optimistic that better economic ties between our countries can lead to better lives for ordinary Cubans. If access to American food can improve the lot of the average Cuban, then trade achieves a humanitarian goal.
Moreover, Cubans are interested in our country. I learned this from a cab driver in Havana. He knew I was American, and asked where I was from. “Missouri,” I said. He hadn’t heard of it. Then I mentioned our two biggest cities. He brightened up: “Oh yes, the Cardinals of St. Louis and the Royals of Kansas City.” He knew that the Cuban-born Kendrys Morales was, at the time, a designated hitter for the Royals.
Maybe the curiosity starts with baseball. Perhaps over time it extends to other areas. Then, as our countries trade, Cubans will ask questions about the United States—and as they learn about our freedoms, they’ll demand more of their own.
The reality is that Cuba is beginning to experiment with capitalism. There’s more of it under Raoul than there was under Fidel. Cuban farmers still don’t own their land, but they’re allowed to own more of their production than they were just a few years ago. This is a step in the right direction, and we ought to encourage the next step and then the one after that.
Trade alone won’t transform Cuba—but it can play a part, and in the post-Fidel era, Missouri plans to be at the table.
Richard Fordyce is a fourth generation farmer growing corn, soybeans and beef cattle on a family farm in North Central Missouri. He serves the State of Missouri as the Director for the Department of Agriculture and is a member of the Global Farmer Network.