By LULADEY B. TADESSE | The News Journal
After traveling to Cuba earlier this month, Delaware officials predict plenty of opportunities to export agricultural products there.
Cubans are interested in buying a variety of products from Delaware, including frozen poultry, apples, wheat, potatoes and soybeans.
Led by Delaware’s Secretary of Agriculture Michael Scuse, about a dozen people including politicians, private sector and nonprofit representatives, went to Cuba to establish trade relations.
The U.S. trade embargo against Cuba forbids exports of most products, but there are exceptions. Trade in agricultural and some medical products is allowed.
Last year, Cubans purchased $560 million in food and agricultural products from the U.S. Thirty-seven states currently ship cargo to Cuba, mainly using ports in Gulf states and Florida.
“It’s important that Delaware gets in there and doesn’t get left behind,” said Rebecca C. Faber, executive director of World Trade Center Delaware, who helped initiate the trip to Cuba.
Two poultry companies in Delaware, Perdue Farms and Tyson Foods, already export chicken to Cuba from other states. But there are no other companies in Delaware that use the Port of Wilmington or directly trade with Cuba.
“One of the things we have been trying to do as a port is to get more agricultural products moving across the Port of Wilmington from our downstate people in Kent and Sussex,” said Tom Keefer, deputy executive director of the Diamond State Port Corp., which manages the Wilmington port.
Delaware farmers already grow chicken, grain, fruits and vegetables that Cubans need. And the Port of Wilmington, which has one of the largest dockside refrigerated storage facilities of any port, is capable of handling fruits, vegetables and poultry.
The port can handle shipments of 5,000 tons to 10,000 tons of frozen chicken a month depending on the season, Keefer said. The port also would be able to handle containers of wheat and other grains, he added.
The Port of Wilmington receives dozens of ships throughout the year from Central America and South America carrying refrigerated grapes, bananas and other fruits. Trade with Cuba would allow some of these ships, which often return to South America almost empty, to carry products to Cuba.
The challenge is convincing local growers and companies to trade with Cuba, and the shipping companies to make it cost effective for Cubans to use the Port of Wilmington.
“There is more and more interest and we believe that there are some real possibilities for some Delaware products to be sold into Cuba,” Scuse said.
Scuse said he has begun talking to some farmers about sending a container of wheat to Cuba. The state sells most of its 45,000 acres of wheat to mills in Pennsylvania. But most of those mills are at capacity and farmers don’t have nearby markets to sell the wheat.
“It’s important to have more outlets for Delaware farmers as far as any product that we have,” said Bruce Walton, first vice president of the Delaware Farm Bureau, which represents about 3,000 growers. He said trade with Cuba would be a plus.
Mountaire Farms, a local poultry company that sent a representative on the trip to Cuba, is negotiating a deal to ship chicken there through the Port of Wilmington.
In addition to Mountaire, Delaware’s delegation included Port to Port, a Wilmington-based company that charters ships and sells used cars in Central America. Port to Port also is interested in exporting wheat.
Another company, Delaware River Stevedores, which hires the labor for loading and unloading shipments at the Port of Wilmington also went on the trip to Cuba.
Trading with Cuba has its advantages.
The island nation is close. The Cuban government is eager to do business. And, importantly, the U.S. government requires Cuba to pay American companies before the shipments arrive.
“There is no risk of not getting paid,” said John Pastor, a Delaware trade representative at the Office of Management and Budget.