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Rice producers keep eye on overseas developments

While LibertyLink traits in the U.S. rice supply are rice farmers’ chief concern, there are some overseas developments to keep an eye on.

“Until the USDA announcement (on GM rice contamination), we were looking at a very promising crop year with prices on the move,” said Dwight Roberts, U.S. Rice Producers Association president at the Missouri Rice Research and Demonstration Farm field day outside Glennonville, Mo. “Things were in (U.S. rice farmers’ favor with) stocks around the world down and serious water problems in Brazil and Uruguay just as they’re preparing to plant a new crop.

“I just talked (with a contact) in Uruguay and it appears they’ll have to reduce acreage of the same type of quality long-grain we have here. He said they’d drop 20 percent of the acreage, maybe more.”

Latin America, Mexico and Central America continue to be the number one market for the type of rice grown in the Bootheel. Mexico still buys 650,000 tons of rice each year, some 99 percent of it rough rice.

Annually, the five Central American countries — Guatemala, El Salvador, Costa Rica, Honduras and Nicaragua — buy close to 700,000 tons. And those countries still have a lot of growth in them.

“We were surprised to learn that in many areas of those countries, they still don’t eat as much rice as we thought.”

A large part of Mexico, because of the Aztec influence, doesn’t have much of a rice market.

“Those (with Aztec ancestry) prefer corn and beans. We’re trying to bring rice to them through a public relations agency… There’s a very good program in those countries training women to cook rice-based food, school lunch programs, community development and other things. We’re proud of those.”

In some of the more rural areas where these efforts are in place, rice consumption has gone up 40 percent. Roberts said an example of this is the mountainous areas of Guatemala and Honduras.

Cuba continues to be a priority for Roberts and colleagues.

“Due to Hurricane Mitch, 2001 was the first year we were able to ship rice to Cuba. 2004 was the biggest year of Cuban rice trade; we shipped 160,000 tons. Then, (the Bush administration), in their infinite wisdom, redefined ‘cash payment.’ That caused further restrictions on shipping logistics. This happened despite the fact that Cuba pays cash.”

As a result, U.S. rice sales to Cuba went down 25 percent in 2005.

This year, “I believe we’re running at about 100,000 tons. Cuba continues to be very important because if those restrictions are loosened, we could immediately ship some 400,000 tons.”

Cuba already is importing between 650,000 tons and 700,000 tons of rice annually.

“That’s amazing. A country of 11 million people buys as much rice as Mexico, which has 110 million people.”

Cuba currently imports most of its rice from Vietnam and Thailand. Those countries send shipments of 20,000 tons to 40,000 tons at a time.

“That means the Cubans see more quality problems and also means trouble for logistics and distribution. Cuba has only one port that can handle ships of that size.

“Even if the Cubans didn’t like us — which, except for a few D.C. (politicians), isn’t the case — they certainly like our rice. We can ship big volumes to them in two or three days. We can send them ships holding 2,000 tons to 8,000 tons. That means any port around the island can handle it. From there distribution is easier for them.”

Even with the recent news of Fidel Castro’s illness, Roberts sees no major changes for the island nation.

“I believe Raul (Fidel’s brother) has been running the country for the last 40 years. Fidel has been the figurehead, but Raul has been the organizational driver.

“They said during the Cuban revolution Fidel would say, ‘We’ll charge down this mountain and take this town!’ Raul would caution, ‘Wait, wait. First, we must make sure we think this through. We must make sure we have enough water and first aid.’ So, I don’t see any major internal changes.”

U.S. rice farmers don’t agree “with governmental policies of China or Vietnam or many other countries. But we want to sell our product to countries that will pay cash. And I’ve never heard of a case where Cuba didn’t pay for rice that was delivered.”

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