Missouri farmers could cash if trade opens with Cuba

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MARSHALL - When President Barack Obama announced in late 2014 he would work toward ending the Cuba trade embargo, some Missouri farmers and agriculture associations saw the island as a potential economic boom for their state.

Shane Kinne, director of public policy for the Missouri Corn Growers Association, said the potential lift is certainly attractive for Missouri farmers.

"You have a country that is 90 miles off the coast of the U.S., and we have a state that is located on the Missouri-Mississippi River. So strategically, Missouri farmers are very well positioned to trade with Cuba."

Kinne said the state has actually sent corn to Cuba for the last 10 years. Under the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, exports of certain goods were allowed to go to Cuban markets only if cash payments were made before the goods were shipped. If diplomatic ties are secured, U.S. exports such as rice, corn, chicken, beef and pork will be popular items to ship to the communist nation.

But not everyone agrees the U.S. should trade freely with Cuba.

Jim Thomas Jr., owner of Share-Life Farms, said an open trading relationship with the island is not right.

"I guess you would say to me it's hypocritical for our government to sometimes have such a fit over some nation about their civil rights policies and then open up, try to lift the embargo on a place like Cuba who is known for its civil rights atrocities," Thomas Jr. said.

Sen. Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, also opposes lifting the embargo so long as the Castro brothers are in charge of the nation's government.

"I don't think Cuba is a good market right now, or a trustworthy market, for the United States to do business with," Blunt said. "At some point in the future, it could be a good market for us, but that would involve a pretty dramatic change in the behavior and attitude of the Cuban government towards food and toward paying their bills."

Sen. Claire McCaskill, D-Missouri, visited the island in February. She said it's time drop the embargo which would not only help American producers, but Cuban citizens too.

In a statement, McCaskill said, "We are always looking for opportunities - whether it's in Asia or whether it's 90 miles from our shore - to sell more beans, or rice, or corn, or pork, or poultry."

According to a report by the University of Florida's Institute of Food and Agriculture Sciences, in 2014, Cuba imported more than $2 billion worth of food products, much of which is bought in bulk from countries in Asia or South America. But Cuba doesn't have a ton of space to store extra crops, which could be an incentive to buy American.

If the embargo is lifted, Missouri could see a boom in its rice, corn, soybean and meat sectors. Michael Aide, a rice specialist at the University of Missouri, said rice is also particularly promising because Missouri is among the nation's top rice producers.

In 2014, about 15 percent of all the total corn bought by Cuba was from them U.S.

Kinne said if the U.S. was able to gain 100 percent of the market for Cuban corn that mean 750,000 metric tons would be sent to the country making it the 12th largest market.

Vegetable farm owner Jim Thomas Jr. said while Cuba could bring the country profit, Americans need to be weary of the potential back slap that it might receive.

"I'm all for economic development, and I'm all for helping all of us farmers to make more. But I think we also need to be aware of the fact of who we are dealing with, and we ought to put principles above profit," Thomas Jr. said. "When you deal with a tyrant like Fidel Castro and his brother, to me you're just asking for trouble down the line."

The National Chicken Council, American Soybean Association and the U.S. Cattlemen's Association are also groups pushing for an end to the embargo. 

Congress will have take a vote in order to lift the embargo.