The Riceland Foods Inc. farmer-owned cooperative sold $3.5 million worth of rice to Cuba at the just-concluded U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exposition in Havana, and Riceland officials believe more sales will follow.

“Sales (at the Exposition) totaled 25,000 metric tons of rough and milled rice and were all to Alimport, Cuba's food import agency. The sales were for cash payable though third country banks as required by U.S. law,” says Bill Reed, Riceland vice president and spokesman.

The sale followed several tours of Cuba by Riceland's farmer-members and officials, goodwill gestures and continued efforts by Riceland to win passage of legislation reforming the United States' 40-year-old ban on open trade with Cuba.

Last year, those at Riceland were rewarded for their efforts through U.S. sales of 71,600 metric tons of rice to Cuba. Those sales (Riceland's share — 22,500 tons of milled and rough rice — was reportedly worth $4 million) marked the first time in nearly 40 years that Cuba had purchased U.S. rice and made the country the 14th largest importer of the U.S. grain.

Late last month, to the delight of U.S. agriculture interests, the door to Cuba's markets was pried open a fraction more. Contracts with a number of U.S. companies, totaling some $90 million, were signed at the U.S. Food and Agribusiness Exhibition held in Havana.

The agribusiness expo ran from Sept. 26 to Sept. 30 and ended with chief Cuban trade officials saying other deals — potentially $13 million of deals — are still being hammered out.

Since last November, Cuba has purchased over $140 million of U.S. food. The Havana fair was only the latest gambit to attract Cuban cash and further open the island-nation's markets.

“Riceland officials believe Cuba's purchases this year will far exceed those of last year… Cuba is very interested in working with us and we see that as very important to the U.S. rice industry,” says Riceland's Reed.

It isn't just grain that Cuba is after. The fair also produced a $75,000 deal with Minnesota's Kaehler's Homedale Farms for 50 beef cattle and three breeding bulls.

Archers Daniels Midland reportedly signed contracts worth $17 million.

And after the signing of a $17 million-plus deal with Minneapolis-based Cargill, Inc., Cuban President Fidel Castro said the obvious: “The (U.S. trade) embargo has been weakening.” The Cargill deal will send soybeans, soybean oil, turkey and corn to Cuba.

U.S. agribusiness insiders say that while Congress appears ready to weaken or entirely remove the embargo, the Bush administration remains reticent to do so. Several key industry players say if there were a vote in Congress to lessen or do away with the embargo, it would likely pass.

If all sanctions were removed, several things would happen that would bolster U.S./Cuban trade, say the men. First, U.S. tourist dollars would flow into Cuba and would generate spending for U.S. products. Second, Cuba would have access to U.S. credit facilities for making large purchases.


e-mail: dbennett@primediabusiness.com.