U.S. equipment imports could transform countryside
PUERTA DE GOLPE, Cuba — Before the sun comes up each morning, Carlos Yamil González is working with his father-in-law in the quiet fields nearly 100 miles west of Havana.
With the help of two men, the four ranchers, wearing wide-brimmed hats and boots, tie the cows to one of the fences they made with wood sticks and wire. They bind their legs so they don’t move. They wash their udders and milk each by hand.
The dairy cows are thin. The grass they need to eat only started to grow again a couple of weeks ago, after rains gave the drought a break.
On a good day, González can get more than 11 gallons of milk from the cows. But today was not a good day.
“The cows get nervous,” said José Rojas, González’s father-in-law.
González and Rojas are among the many small farmers Cuba relies on for milk, beef and produce. They continued expanding their operation despite difficult times — 15 years planting tobacco and the last five farming dairy cattle.
They don’t have feed for their cows, and medicine is not always available. Wire for fencing is scarce again. When it rains, González and his relatives have to wait under a shelter they made with tree branches and metal.
But in just five years, González and his family managed to increase their stock from 14 to 68 heads, by calves born from the herd.
“We are doing well,” said González, 49.
Private small farms and cooperatives have provided the bulk of Cuba’s agricultural production since the beginning of the 1990s, without much equipment, tools or other materials. But it’s not enough.
Despite its vast raw acreage, fertile lands and long tradition of agriculture, Cuba imports most of what its population eats. One of the country’s main economic challenges is to increase the productivity of its farms and provide a greater share of the products that Cubans consume, such as milk.
As the U.S. starts down a path of improved relations, the Cuban government and some U.S. businesses argue Cuban farmers and consumers could benefit. U.S. companies could sell the island tractors, fertilizers, pesticides and other technology to help improve agricultural production. And Cuba could buy more American food at a lower cost.
Cuba also could generate money needed for the agricultural products and technology by exporting crops such as organic produce, tobacco and fruits to profitable U.S. markets.
For now, González and his family work the land the only way they can, clearing thick vegetation by hand. There is no bulldozer to help. González can buy fertilizer from the cooperative. But he’d like to be able to find feed for his cows and wire for new fences.
“Our goal is to expand,” he said.
After Fidel Castro came to power, the new government nationalized most of the land, banned foreign ownership and distributed some land among small farmers. The government took over land held by foreigners and big landowners and set up state farms, where machinery, technology, oil, fertilizers and other resources were plentiful, thanks to profitable trade with the former Soviet Union.
After the Soviet Union’s final collapse in 1991, much of the trade stopped, and the government handed over most state farms to newly formed cooperatives. Years later, the land also was made available to farmers to use at no charge.
Juan José León, spokesman for the Cuban Agriculture Ministry, said Cuba should produce about 50 percent of what the country eats but now is providing only about 30 percent. Instead, it’s importing corn, soy beans, wheat, rice and other products, including powdered milk from New Zealand, Canada and other countries.
To produce more, Cuban fields need mechanization and technology, including fertilizers and pesticides, and better seeds, he said.
The export of many food products and medicines has been exempted from the embargo since 2000, and U.S. growers have been selling chicken, soy and grains, among other products, since then. But U.S. regulations require Cuba to pay in cash before the products are shipped or through third-party guarantees from foreign banks.
The U.S. is Cuba’s third-largest supplier, exporting $300 million in agricultural products in 2014, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. The European Union and Brazil are the largest suppliers.
León blames the embargo as the main cause of low productivity of Cuban fields. Not being able to sell products to the U.S. — a huge, nearby untapped market — restricts income the country needs to provide resources to farmers, he said. Cuba sells produce such as pineapple, oranges and honey to Europe, but shipping the products so far leads to higher prices, which limits exports.
If Cuba could sell tobacco, rum, nickel, medicines, organic vegetables and fruits to the U.S., the money could be used for technology from the U.S., León said. The U.S. consumes about three-fourths of the cigars worldwide, but those must be imported from Nicaragua, the Dominican Republic, Honduras and Mexico, he said, and they are not as good as Cuban cigars.
León disagrees with those who say Cuba’s problems are its own, that a communist country cannot manage agriculture. That is speculation, he says, and there is only one way to prove it: Lift the embargo.
“When they remove (the embargo), we don’t have any pretext,” he said.
Mario González, professor at City University of New York and an economist specializing in Cuba’s agricultural sector, said lifting the embargo would help Cuban farms, but its agriculture industry has many other problems.
Cuba approved new regulations to increase agricultural production in 2007. Among other measures, the state offered farmers contracts to use small parcels at no charge, and the state company that buys their produce agreed to pay higher prices for some products, such as rice, milk and potatoes, according to a study by González and Havana University professor Armando Nova.
The state also encouraged greater production by authorizing the sale of produce at roadside kiosks operated by cooperatives, the direct sale of agricultural products to tourism enterprises without state involvement, and the creation of experimental wholesale markets in three provinces where farmers and cooperatives can offer products at wholesale prices after satisfying the state quota.
These measures didn’t have the impact hoped for in 2013, and Cuba had to spend $2 billion on imported food and agricultural products, according to the study.
González said some terms of the state land agreement allowing farmers to use the acreage hurts productivity, including the short 20-year term. Some types of production require several years of investment and take longer.
The market, he said, should have a bigger role to increase efficiency. To do that, the quotas farmers have to hand in to the state company Acopio could be reduced and restrictions lifted on what products can be sold and to whom.
Farmers also need technical assistance and financing, and they must have a reliable market to buy farming products at an affordable price, González said.
Ismael Martínez, 58, started working in Cuba’s tobacco fields when he was a boy, helping his father. He now grows his own tobacco on 33 acres near González’s dairy farm.
More than a crop, the leaves of tobacco symbolize a proud culture and rich tradition in Cuba, with deep roots in the countryside of the Pinar del Río province. Growing and cultivating Cuban tobacco requires intense manual labor, work that is done mostly at the hands of farmers who have spent years getting to know the crop’s timing and demands.
During tobacco season, Martínez usually wakes at 7 a.m. and works until sunset. If he had machinery, he said, he could work more comfortably and efficiently.
The tobacco house where he dries the leaves for three months after the women sort and tie them is empty in July, but the smell in the humid, dark house remains.
Martínez already has sold his crop to a state company that bought the leaves through the cooperative, although he saved a few leaves to roll his own cigars. The leaves from the last crop didn’t reach their maximum quality, but they came very near, he said.
He doesn’t know where his leaves will end up. It could be, they are used for the renowned Cohiba cigars.
He wouldn’t mind if his tobacco makes it to U.S. stores so he could help share the great experience of smoking cigars with Americans.
“One puts effort in picking the best,” he said.
Some U.S. farmers, including many in Florida, see some of Cuba’s agriculture as a threat.
Janell Hendren, from the Florida Farm Bureau Federation, said exports from Cuba to the U.S. can hurt the state’s growers of fruits and vegetables.
One problem is Cuba’s state-controlled agriculture industry, which could export produce below the cost of production and create unfair competition, she said.
Another problem is the threat of invasive species, Hendren said. Cuba should allow the Florida Department of Agriculture to make sure there are systems in place to prevent this problem in exports to Florida.
California growers look at it differently and think they can invest or create partnerships in Cuba if U.S. restrictions are lifted, she said. But Florida growers mistrust the Cuban government, she said.
William Messina, professor at the University of Florida and an expert on Cuban agriculture, believes Cuba likely will focus on increasing agriculture production for domestic consumption even if the embargo is lifted.
At some point, Cuba might be a potential competitor for some Florida growers, he said. But that will take time and investment. Messina said Cuba also would have to implement new sanitary regulations to comply with U.S. import rules.
In the end, Cuba exports would benefit given the country’s proximity to U.S. markets.
“Exporting 90 miles across is easy, fast,” he said. “You can pick up vegetables one day and they can be in Florida next day.”
The family of Naples businessman John Parke Wright has a long history in Cuba. He says they lost a 15,000-acre ranch, La Candelaria, near Bayamo, after Castro came to power.
Wright isn’t interested in owning La Candelaria ranch. But he would like it back, in the form of a lease for 100 years, to bring good cattle and to set up a ranch that would increase production of beef that is so scarce in Cuba.
Wright has been traveling back and forth between the U.S. and Cuba for years, helping the island’s beef industry by bringing cattle from states like Florida and Texas. He said he brought semen from a prized Brangus bull, Gator, to a Camagüey ranch in eastern Cuba, where it was used in Cuba’s Zebu cattle. That, he said, will be the origin of a new herd that can take the heat, and fatten up quickly.
As more Americans consider Cuba as a destination, Wright said he would like to build a hotel resort at the ranch, a good place for ecotourism and visiting nearby touristic attractions. He also would like to build hotels in Havana.
“I see one day the economy of Havana and the economy of Miami being totally integrated and linked,” he said during a visit to Cuba.
Paul Johnson, who sells food to Cuba through his Chicago Foods International, agrees. He is the vice chairman of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, an organization of U.S. agribusinesses like Cargill and their trade associations. The group lobbies to normalize trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
Johnson said the embargo restrictions hurt U.S. businesses. When he sells food products for supermarkets to Cuba, he has to receive a bank transfer for payment before he ships the merchandise.
“No country operates without credit. No household operates without credit,” he said.
He said he’s been contacted by many agricultural businesses, from small entrepreneurs to large corporations, that are interested in doing business in Cuba. But reinstating trade relations won’t happen overnight, he said.
“Nothing happens so quickly after such a long time of not communicating,” Johnson said. “There’s a lot of conversations that have to happen before this happens. But it will come. I don’t see it going backward, but forward.”