By Shannon Fiecke | Winona Daily News
Kicking it back with Fidel Castro might not be the most politically correct thing to do, but Ralph Kaehler believes it’s the right step toward building peace with our southern neighbor.
When his two sons are grown, the St. Charles, Minn., farmer doesn’t want them leaving for Cuba toting guns, but rather preparing to shake hands in a business deal.
“We’ve never went to war with a major trading partner,” he said.
Cuba is far from a large trading partner, but when the United States partially lifted its embargo on trade with the nation in 2000, allowing U.S. food and agricultural items to be sold there for cash, it opened a window of exchange Kaehler is trying to pull wider.
While he and his wife, Filomena, disagree with some Cuban policies, they don’t think the island is the villain many make it out to be. It’s hypocritical for our country to shut its back door, they say, when it gives most favored nation trading status to China, another communist country.
The Kaehlers orchestrated the first sale of Minnesota livestock to Cuba since the U.S. embargo was implemented in 1959. Though media coverage from a 2002 trade trip to Cuba made them famous, the trans-country alliance was nothing new for the family, whose international marketing efforts have earned them an award from the Minnesota Department of Agriculture.
Growing the market
The Kaehler sons, Cliff, 15, and Seth, 13, are the fifth generation on the family farm, which was established in 1881.
The family mostly sells purebred beef cattle ó shorthorn, Simmental and Angus. To diversify their operation by building clientele in other countries, the family made the first sale of shorthorn cattle to China in 1996, and Ralph has participated in trade missions around the world, including seven to Cuba.
Ralph Kaehler said there are few purebred breeders left who make their income totally off livestock business. Kaehler, a district sales supervisor for Quality Liquid Feed, said fewer people are raising beef, which means he has to reach farther out to sell cattle.
Kaehler and a collection of other Minnesota farmers group together to sell agricultural products directly to international buyers. He said purchasers like the program because they know they’re getting good products.
When cattle become part of a nationwide stock, quality is diluted, he said, and farmers who raise the best cattle don’t get more money than those performing poorly.
To insure buyers get the quality they desire, the Kaehlers bring livestock selectors to their farm. It’s not much different than dealing with domestic purchasers, Ralph Kaehler said.
The Kaehlers’ guest book shows they’ve had buyers from 25 countries stay at their house. Sometimes the international visitors leave notes in the book in their native language to be interpreted by future guests.
So how does this white, rural farm family know how to interact with buyers from around the globe?
Filomena Kaehler said although foreigners speak another language and eat different food, they are essentially alike.
She learned this lesson early growing up in Colorado, where her father was a museum curator at a university. International students often stayed with the family over the holidays, and her parents also were African art dealers.
The licensed school teacher met Ralph Kaehler at college and learned the cattle business after they married. Over the years, the couple has hosted a number of international students.
Trade with Cuba
Despite having a stronger grasp on the international scene than an average American family, the Kaehlers said they were neutral on Cuba when they first traveled there in 2002.
But after talking with Cubans away from the camera and discussing the country with American business people and international visitors, the Kaehlers have become staunch advocates of trade with the nation. They’ve also developed a special relationship with the country’s leader.
Cuba has stuck its hand out, they say, but the United States keeps bowing to special interests groups instead of acting in the best interests of average Americans.
On Sunday, beef selectors from Cuba arrived at the family’s farm, but Filomena Kaehler said the delegation waited a year to receive visas from the United States.
Ralph Kaehler said other countries are “laughing all the way to the bank” while the United States refuses to install free trade with Cuba.
The Kaehlers said although Cubans aren’t prosperous like Americans, they are literate, have good health care and are better off than residents of many other Latin American countries.
The Kaehlers believe that by opening up trade with Cuba, the country will begin to change, similar to the transformation in China.
Other than long plane rides, Seth Kaehler, 13, said he’s enjoyed exploring the world outside the United States.
When they visited Greece and Italy three years ago, Cliff Kaehler told his mother he wished he could speak other languages like his European counterparts. Now a sophomore at Cotter High School, he is learning Spanish.
The language will come in handy, as Cliff expects to travel to Cuba for a fourth time. He said visiting foreign lands first-hand can’t be matched by reading books about them.
“You have to learn it by experience,” Cliff said.
And he has learned by doing.
This spring, Cliff gave the opening remarks at an international trade show in Cuba, speaking about why America should trade with the nation.
He and his brother also think gaining the attention of the world’s longest-ruling leader is pretty awesome.
At the 2002 trade show, Fidel Castro ó who Filomena Kaehler said grew up on a ranch ó stopped to talk with the boys about their livestock, drawing a flurry of media cameras.
There was no hidden agenda, Filomena Kaehler said, as Castro discussed the animals at length with her sons.
The Cuban leader grew so enamored with the boys that he invited them to be his guests of honor at a Cuban cultural celebration, and the family also got to attend a presidential dinner.
When Castro walked alongside the boys into the celebration, Seth Kaehler told his mother he was expecting applause, so he pretended it was for himself. At one point during their stay, someone asked the Kaehler boys to get an autograph from Castro for himself. When they went searching for Castro his staff took them down to the leader’s limo. Sitting in his vehicle, they again chatted with the president.
Now, whenever the Kaehlers return to Cuba, the family meets with Castro, who has even added them to his Christmas card list.
ON THE WEB
To learn more about the Kaehler farm, visit [url=http://www.kaehlercattle.com]http://www.kaehlercattle.com[/url]