Sharon Kiley Mack | Bangor News
It pays to bring the big guns to the negotiating table, state agriculture industry leaders learned last week on a trade mission to Cuba. “I hate to admit it,” state Agriculture Commissioner Robert Spear said Monday, “but my presence did make a big difference. We were heroes down there when we declared December 15 as Maine-Cuban Trade Day and presented an official proclamation.”
Spear said Cuba is a country steeped in tradition and heavy on protocol, so having the state’s leaders travel to the island personally was important to Cuban officials.
“It really helped us set the mood for establishing the contracts,” he said. He said the mission was well-orchestrated and “definitely not a hit-or-miss venture.”
Two years ago, a small group traveled from Maine to Cuba seeking agricultural trade contracts and met with limited success.
Last week, however, a multilevel delegation, consisting of everyone from the commissioner to potato farmers, brought $10 million in contracts back to Maine. Spear said it is the largest single contract ever accomplished on behalf of Maine’s farmers.
And that is only the beginning, Spear said.
Cuban agricultural leaders are expected in Maine as early as January to begin inspection of the state’s apple processing industry, and a second group of cattle producers will be here in March to inspect and prepare Maine cattle for shipment to Cuba in April.
Another reason the mission was successful is that the industry experts - the actual potato, apple and egg producers themselves - were invited along.
“Two years ago, we worked hard to get the Cubans to take an interest in potatoes, particularly seed potatoes,” Bill Bell said Monday. Bell was on the trip representing the Northeast Ag and Feed Alliance, which is the region’s livestock feed industry.
“Obviously, we were not successful at that time. What made the difference? This time we had in Cuba the real experts on Maine potatoes, the producers themselves, who could discuss details and the advance commitments which are necessary to result in Maine farms planting for sales to Cuba,” he said.
Bell also said Spear’s presence was key.
“Bob was able to speak to some inspection issues which the Cubans had, and the Cubans were so pleased to have Bob down there that they went the extra mile to arrive at agreements,” Bell said.
David Radlo of Radlo Foods said Monday that he attributed his company’s $400,000 in new brown egg orders to Cuba to the team effort exhibited by the Maine representatives.
Radlo, whose brown egg production is based in Leeds and Turner, said that sale of his company’s eggs had previously been blocked by Cuban veterinary restrictions. He commended state veterinarian Dr. Don Hoenig for his advance preparation and ability to work through these concerns with Cuban veterinary officials.
Bell said he believes the Cuban veterinary officials were impressed with Hoenig, “his close working relationship with [U.S. Department of Agriculture] veterinarians and his professional stature - the fact that Don went to England to help with the foot and mouth disease outbreak, and that he is a vice president of the U.S. Animal Health Association.”
Other farms and businesses that directly benefited from the Cuban trade mission included Wauregan Farms, a dairy cattle producer; IDEXX Laboratories Inc. of Westbrook, which provides veterinary testing equipment; Strawberry Hill Farms in Skowhegan, a maple producer; Cooper Brothers apples; and Maine’s potato farmers.