By MECHELE COOPER | Blethen Maine Newspapers
Jeremy Steeves said his family jumped at the opportunity for another market for their product.
And after returning home Friday after five days in Cuba, the maple syrup producer from Skowhegan said his maple syrup will be sold in specialty shops in that island nation, with tourists among the biggest customers.
Steeves was among a state delegation sent to negotiate a trade agreement last week for Maine agricultural goods.
His Strawberry Hill Farms—a family business that produces certified organic products on a 200-acre farm—sells maple syrup around the United States in 1-ounce bottles, 40-gallon barrels and an array of sizes in between.
The 10,000 maple trees tapped each year on his farm produce about 2,500 gallons of syrup, he said.
“It was interesting doing business differently than the way I’m used to,” Steeves said Monday. “It’s more dealing with the government than individuals. There are certain logistical challenges shipping to Cuba, because there’s no direct way. At this time, it’s not organized. But as the trade grows, it will be easier to do it.”
In a joint communiqué signed in Cuba by Maine Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear and Pedro Alvarez Borrego, chief executive officer of Alimport—a Cuban import agency—Maine agreed to supply $10 million worth of agricultural goods including dairy products, apples and potatoes for a minimum period of four years beginning in January 2005.
Mark Hutton, a vegetable specialist from Highmoor Farm in Monmouth—a 270-acre research farm that’s been in existence since 1909—also was a member of the delegation.
He said the trip was a wonderful experience.
“The people were very personable and very professional, and everyone we met was friendly and just excited that we were there,” Hutton said.
The Maine delegation participating in trade negotiations in Havana from Dec. 12-16 included Spear; former Gov. Kenneth Curtis; Doyle Marchant, president of Cedar Spring Agricultural Company in North Yarmouth; and agricultural growers and producers from the potato, apple, dairy and maple syrup industries.
Gov. John Baldacci announced the agreement last Thursday.
“This agreement shows the importance of increasing our reach across state and national boundaries to enable Maine agricultural producers and other businesses to gain new markets,” Baldacci said.
Marchant, organizer of the Maine delegation, said the group also came home with a letter of intent for an expansive contract over the next 18 months for seed potatoes and table-stock potatoes.
He said he would lead a delegation of potato growers to Cuba in March to meet with Cuban growers and assist in the development of potato products and new varieties.
Marchant has held a U.S. Department of Treasury license to market agricultural goods since April 2002 and participated in the first-ever U.S. Cuban Agricultural Trade Show, held in the fall of 2002.
“We have now received a formal invitation to represent certain segments of Maine’s agricultural community in this opportunity to expand trade relationships between Maine and Cuba,” Marchant said. “We hope that this is only the beginning of a relationship between Maine’s hardworking agricultural producers and this large and relatively untapped market.”
Marchant said Alimport signed contracts worth $1 billion to procure U.S. agricultural products over the past three years, and made timely cash payments of $925 million to American providers.
He said representatives from diverse agricultural sectors in the United States have negotiated export contracts with Cuba—allowable under U.S. law.
“With international trade, one of the critical components is establishing trust with a foreign country and listening very carefully to what they want,” he said. “Having done that, it was time to form a delegation and bring them in for trade negotiations and marketing.”
If the state takes advantage of the 2005 agreement, he said it could represent the largest agricultural food export in the history of the state.
Marchant said he worked closely with the governor and U.S. Rep. Tom Allen, D-1st District, and that U.S. Rep. Michael Michaud, D-2nd District, and U.S. Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, offered letters of support.
He said Spear was critical in the success of the negotiations.
While Spear was in Cuba he also explored additional options and issues for other agricultural growers and producers in Maine.
“It is important for Maine that we explore this new market and tap into the potential we believe exists for Maine’s quality agricultural products, as well as establish a proactive long-term relationship with Cuba,” Spear said.