Joy Powell | Star Tribune
From the nation’s heartland, a shipment of cattle and bison is bound for Cuba, taking a Caribbean cruise that will earn the animals a place in history.
After four decades of trade restrictions, these are the first U.S. cattle shipped to Cuba, other than a few sent to the island last November during a trade show, said Ralph Kaehler, a St. Charles farmer whose family arranged the shipment from Midwestern farms.
These dairy and beef cattle and buffalos are sailing past trade blockades that have been in place since the 1959 Cuban revolution.
After a hurricane battered Cuba in 2001, the U.S. government relaxed export restrictions to allow cash-only sales of food and agricultural products. The battle was on for the Cuban market.
Kaehler traveled to Cuba last September with then-Gov. Jesse Ventura, Minnesota Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson and others to attend a four-day trade show—the first for U.S. food and agriculture products on the island since Fidel Castro came to power.
Kaehler’s two sons, Cliff and Seth, became Castro’s personal emissaries to the Kaehler family’s pens there. Since then, one of Kaehler’s heifers has produced a calf on the island and twice as much milk as the typical Cuban cow. That helped sell the Cubans on the Midwest cattle now on their way.
Kaehler credits the Minnesota Agriculture Department in helping Minnesota farmers open up new export markets.
“This is the first large shipment of animals to go to Cuba,” Kaehler said, “and there’ll be two more shipments going by the end of fall.”
He and his wife, Filomena, and his brothers, Frank and Ed Kaehler, arranged the shipment through their business, Kaehler’s Homedale Farm Enterprises. On Tuesday, they donated a heifer to the “people of Cuba” in return for the Cubans’ hospitality last fall and also sold a bull, Kaehler said.
The rest of the cattle and the 12 bison exported Tuesday were sold through the Kaehlers by other ranchers in Minnesota, Wisconsin, Nebraska and Iowa for more than $300,000.
But that doesn’t count the many costs associated with exporting. “There’s a lot of risk and headaches,” Kaehler said.
After a battery of tests and inspections by Cuban officials who came to Minnesota, the cattle were isolated to ensure they stayed healthy until they rode in trucks to Gulfport-Biloxi, Miss., and ambled onto a ship Tuesday night.
They’re sailing in style today in large, specialized livestock containers loaded with hay, hooked up with water, and ventilated with fans.
“They’re traveling first class,” Kaehler said. “They’ve got luxury accommodations with environmental controls, a full-line buffet and unlimited drinks.”
The cows will be able not only to enjoy the breeze, they’ll be able to smell the salty sea air. That’s because their special containers have grated floors so their manure drops below them, keeping their bedding dry and the cattle cruising in comfort.