By BLAKE NICHOLSON Associated Press Writer
North Dakota farm groups are planning more trade trips to Cuba, hoping to build on past successes in the communist island nation and get a firmer foothold in the emerging export market.
“Cuba is the Western Hemisphere’s largest market for dry peas, and it’s the closest market,” said Eric Bartsch, administrator of the North Dakota Dry Pea and Lentil Association. “We’re trying to capitalize on that.”
Congress passed a law four years ago allowing cash sales of U.S. agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba. Since then, farm industry and government officials from North Dakota have made nearly half a dozen trade trips to the country.
“Last year, (Agriculture Commissioner) Roger Johnson took down a couple of our processors and some deals were made, but we didn’t have a lot of product at that time. We weren’t able to move as much as we wanted to,” Bartsch said. “This year, the product is there, and maybe the opportunity to move more product into Cuba.”
North Dakota farmers this year planted a record 280,000 acres of dry peas, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture. With harvest just getting under way, Bartsch said production is estimated at 225,000 metric tons, nearly double last year’s crop.
Bartsch estimated about 15,000 metric tons of North Dakota peas were sold to Cuba last year, far short of what could have been moved. The country imports about 220,000 metric tons of peas a year, most of it from Canada, he said.
The next trip, planned for Sept. 12-15, will include Bartsch; Greg Johnson, owner of Minot-based Premier Pulses International Inc.; and Roger Johnson.
“This is kind of the initial trip,” Bartsch said. “We’re looking at a larger trip later in the year, maybe early winter, to bring several processors down.”
The three people going on the September trip are paying their own way, he said.
The North Dakota Farm Bureau has received a $25,000 grant from the state Agricultural Products Utilization Commission for a trip to Cuba.
APUC funds developers of North Dakota farm products. Executive director John Schneider said the group, a part of the state Commerce Department, has provided a total of $62,000 for Cuba trips in the past two years.
John Mittleider, the Farm Bureau’s vice president for public policy, said that group’s trip is not certain, nor do officials yet know what commodities would be the focus.
“What we’re doing is assessing the needs of the Cuban market, determining what kind of products they’re interested in, what kind of prices, quantities, qualities - all that kind of market information we need,” he said. “Then we’re going to contact North Dakota suppliers and see what their availabilities are.”
Mittleider said Farm Bureau officials are targeting mid-November for a trip.
Cuba in the past has bought peas, dry beans, soybeans, pasta and flour from North Dakota. Sales to date total more than $4 million, according to the North Dakota Trade Office.
Mittleider said other states also are pushing to increase sales to Cuba.
“There’s some significant opportunities down there,” he said. “The challenge we face in North Dakota is to try to get our fair share of the market. A lot of that is getting suppliers in North Dakota familiar with the market, familiar with the players down there.”