By Bruce Edwards Rutland Vermont Herald Staff
Nearly 100 Vermont cows will receive a special welcome when a trade mission led by Lt. Gov. Brian Dubie arrives in Cuba on Friday.
The visit by Dubie and state Agriculture Secretary Steve Kerr is meant to coincide with the inaugural sale of 94 registered heifers from Vermont to help rebuild Cuba’s dairy herd.
The first shipment of cows arrived in Cuba recently. The remaining Vermont cows — as well as cows from Maine — are due to depart Gulfport, Miss., for Havana on Thursday.
Dubie’s visit this week comes more than a year after his first trade mission to Fidel Castro’s Cuba — one of the world’s last communist enclaves. In April 2004, Dubie returned from Cuba with letters of intent to buy Vermont cows, apples and powdered milk.
Dubie said he hopes his upcoming visit will open further trade with the island of 11.3 million people.
“We’ll continue conversations about possible new products and new relationships that make sense for Vermont and Cuba in accordance with the law and we’ll just continue that conversation,” Dubie said Tuesday.
According to Kerr, the 76 Holsteins and 18 Jerseys will be quarantined for up to six weeks at a farm outside Havana, where they’ll become acclimated to the change in climate before being shipped to government farms.
“We’re taking a bunch of northern cows to a very, very hot, humid country,” Kerr said.
And while the Holsteins and Jerseys are not bred for hot climates, Kerr said the cows do perform well once they’ve adapted. As state agriculture secretary, he has a special responsibility to the farmers back home to ensure the cows are being treated well, Kerr said.
“Farmers have a great interest in knowing where these cows are going,” he said. “This is a personal piece of business for most farmers ... because these cows are almost like family to an awful lot of farmers.”
A three-person Cuban delegation visited Vermont in June to handpick the heifers from farms around the state. The deal was brokered by Florida businessman John Parke Wright IV, whose family ties to Cuba go back several generations.
During his six-day visit, Kerr also plans to meet with Cuban officials to discuss organic farming and biotechnology.
Because of the U.S. trade embargo, Kerr said Cuba has had difficulty obtaining pesticides and fertilizers. As a result, he said, the Cubans have “developed a very sophisticated organic agriculture” as well as the use of genetically modified crops to solve their insect and disease problems.
Food, agricultural commodities and medical supplies are the only items exempt from the 43-year-old U.S. trade embargo of Castro’s regime.
Dubie, a Republican, is well aware of the Bush administration’s opposition to even limited trade with Cuba.
Dubie said he remains concerned about Cuba’s human rights record and the arrests of 20 dissidents last month. But he also said the trade mission to Cuba was well within the law.
“I’m the lieutenant governor serving the people of Vermont,” he said, “and I’m concerned abut the issues my president is concerned about, and I’ve talked with our State Department every step of the way.”