By Bruce Edwards | Rutland Herald Vermont
Some Vermont cows are finally getting their chance to take a long trip to Cuba.
Seven months after signing a contract to buy Vermont cows, Cuban officials will visit the state next week to select more than 100 cattle for export to the communist island nation.
The three Cuban officials are scheduled to arrive in Brattleboro on Saturday as part of a five-state swing to purchase 500 head of cattle, according to John Parke Wright IV, a Florida rancher who is brokering the Vermont sale.
The Cuban officials — a veterinarian, a cattle selector and the business manager for Alimport, the Cuban import agency — will spend four days next week inspecting and selecting more than 100 Holsteins and Jerseys.
Wright said the Holstein Association in Brattleboro is coordinating the selection process under the direction of Dr. Gerardo Quaassdorff.
“He’s selecting cattle as we speak,” Wright said Tuesday. “There’s a pre-selection process.”
Vermont Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr said the itinerary includes visits to 10 to 15 farms around the state.
“It looks as though we’ll probably start to look at cattle on Sunday because the cows, a lot of them are in Windham and Windsor counties, but then we have to go up to Orleans and over to Addison and Franklin,” Kerr said.
Last fall when the Vermont contract was signed at Havana’s annual trade fair, it was estimated that Vermont dairy farmers would receive between $1,600 and $2,200 for each pure bred heifer for a deal valued between $160,000 and $220,000.
Wright, who is also the middleman in the purchase of 100 cows each from Maine and Florida and has extensive business dealings with Cuba, declined to discuss the purchase price. But he said cattle prices are “pretty high right now.”
Kerr added that given the current market conditions of high milk prices and a shortage of heifers for sale, farmers should expect to receive near the upper end of the $2,200 range.
“Those who are selling are going to get really strong prices and that’s our ultimate goal,” he said.
Because of a likely shortage of cows in Maine, Kerr said Vermont is prepared to sell the Cubans more than 100 head to make up the difference.
“(We’ll) supply as many from Vermont as we can and then Maine can fill in,” he said.
Added to the purchase price, he said Cuba will also have to pay for a battery of tests for each cow, plus shipping.
With U.S. visas in hand, the three Cuban officials are also visiting Florida, Pennsylvania and Minnesota to purchase a total of 500 head of cattle.
The Bush administration has tried to discourage trade with Castro’s Cuba, which has a poor human rights record and is the only communist nation in the Western Hemisphere.
Food, agricultural products and medical supplies are the only items exempt from the 44-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Cuba.
Once selected, the heifers will be shipped to Port Everglades, Fla., where they’ll be quarantined for up to two weeks before being shipped to Havana sometime in mid- to late July, Wright said.
The deal to sell Vermont cows to Cuba is part of a trade package negotiated last year by Kerr that also included 3,000 metric tons of powdered milk and 2,000 bushels of apples.
Kerr said that the Cubans have since doubled their order of apples to 4,000 bushels of Macintosh. With visas already approved by the U.S. State Department, Kerr said Cuban officials are now scheduled to come to Vermont in September to inspect the state’s apple crop. Based on last season’s prices, Kerr said a bushel of apples could fetch close to $20 a bushel, perhaps more, for a potential value of $80,000.
The powdered milk deal, valued at $6 million, is being handled by DairyAmerica, a California cooperative. That contract called for an undetermined amount of powdered milk to come from Vermont through the St. Albans Co-op and Agri-Mark.
Based on the state’s initial trade initiative with Cuba, Kerr said it’s likely to lead to future deals.
“We’re being exceptionally careful to send them the very best cattle that are available,” he said. “Secondly, the Cubans know we’re now supplying more cattle than they expected.”
Lastly, he noted that Sen. James Jeffords, I-Vt., recently returned from Cuba with a letter of intent to purchase more agricultural products from the state.