U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba could reach $1.2 billion annually if financial restrictions and other barriers are eased, according to Texas A&M University economist Parr Rosson, who provided the estimate in testimony before the Senate Agriculture Committee last year. Experts also see opportunity down the road for Cuba to ship its own agricultural products to the U.S., including honey, coffee, organic sugar and cigars.
The U.S. embassy in Havana reopened in July, and four months later, U.S. Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack led a trade mission to Cuba. At a conference last month, Vilsack mentioned Cuba, saying that the U.S. should be "dominating" the pork market there but obviously we're not since Canada and to a lesser extent the EU are Cuba's primary pork suppliers. Vilsack is part of a Cabinet delegation traveling to Havana with Obama — the first sitting U.S. president in almost 90 years to visit Cuba.
"Throughout history, agriculture has served as a bridge to foster cooperation, and I have no doubt that agriculture will continue to play a powerful role as we expand our relationship with the Cuban people in the coming years," Vilsack said in a statement.
In 2014, poultry, meat and related products were nearly half of U.S. ag exports to Cuba, and soybean-related products was another 35 percent of the total in dollar terms. That year Cuba was the eighth-largest export market for U.S. poultry. Still, Cuba represents a relatively tiny market for major pork and poultry producers when compared with Asian markets.
"It's a very small country when you think of only 11 million (people)," said Julie Maschhoff, a vice president for Maschhoffs LLC, a family-owned swine production operation based in Carlyle, Illinois. "Our company produces enough pork for 18 million people, so Cuba is not a huge export opportunity. It is more important for free trade to be re-established so Cubans can enjoy a better standard of living."
Maschhoff, who visited Cuba last year in a trade mission with a group of businesses, said the current "quality of food in Cuba is disastrous. The chicken and pork that we tasted at some of the best restaurants would never be acceptable to American consumers."
She added, "We tasted watermelon that looked lovely in color but had absolutely no flavor because the seeds had been used over and over and over. There had been no new genetic introductions and very little fertilizer. Their food supply has not only dwindled, but it's gone down in quality at the same time."