http://www.billingsgazette.net | By TOM LUTEY
Montana pea and lentil growers have negotiated a $7.8 million sale to Cuba.
The deal announced this week will move nearly 15,000 tons of crops from one of the fastest-growing segments of Montana farming. More important, the agreement gives the state a toehold in one of the most difficult markets for American businesses.
Decades-old trade restrictions with the communist country have made selling goods there nearly impossible for American farmers. U.S. foreign policy prohibits money from changing hands directly between Cuba and American businesses.
To complete a deal, Cuba must deposit its payment in the bank of a third country, where U.S. businesses can then take the cash while still honoring the trade ban. Business travel to Cuba, less than 100 miles off the Florida coast, is tightly regulated. Yet Montana pea growers have coveted the Cuban market.
“It’s so close to us, it makes producers salivate,” said Kim Murray, of the Montana Pulse Advisory Committee. Peas, lentils and legumes are known as pulse crops.
Montana’s 15,000 tons is a fraction of the 122,000 tons of peas and lentils Cuba buys annually. Canada, which has no trade restrictions with Cuba, fills the American void.
A taste of Montana
The sale was sparked by a late-November trip to Cuba by eight Montana farmers and ranchers. Murray said the trip was made possible by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., who negotiated a first-ever sale of Montana farm products five years ago.
Arranged sales of Montana farm products to Cuba now exceed $30 million.
Pea and lentil growers have been gearing up for the world trade trips. The organization began raising money through fees less than two years ago so it could pay for marketing and scientific research.
Pulse crops, the seeds of legumes used as food, are one of the fastest-growing areas in Montana agriculture, with planting of crops like chickpeas expanding as much as 40 percent in the past year.
In a few short years, Murray said, Montana has gone from a small player in the pulse crop market to a 25 percent stakeholder.