A container full of Missouri rice is sitting at the port in Havana, Cuba. It is waiting for Mike Martin and the Missouri trade delegation to arrive next week. Then the people of Cuba will be able to sample some homegrown Missouri rice.
The good faith gesture from Martin Rice Company has been a year in the making. This is second time Martin has been on a trade delegation to Cuba. "Last year, we were not able to get the logistics together for shipping that large of a container," he notes. The container holds 18.5 metric tons of long grain, medium grain and aromatic long grain rice, commonly known as Jasmine rice. "This year it worked," he adds.
Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon will lead the delegation of Missourians representing agriculture, business, education and government the trade mission to Cuba from May 29 to June 1. With the recent progress toward normalization of relations between the U.S. and Cuba, the trade mission will focus on growing Missouri exports to the island nation of 11 million, especially agricultural products.
Rice stands to benefit
Martin says the trade mission will hopefully open up a completely new market for selling rice to Cuba, one that has been absent since the 1962 embargo. "We want to show them that we are willing to put our past behind us and try to move forward to facilitate two-way trade," Martin says. "We want them to see the quality products Missouri has, that Missouri has the best quality rice."
During his last visit, Martin visited grocery stores and restaurants. He noted that much of the rice flowing into Cuba is from Vietnam. "There is a little rice from Uruguay and Central and South America, but the bulk of it is from Vietnam," he adds. Vietnamese rice shipped to Cuba is of lesser quality, it is a 15% broken rice. "The overall opinion of the people we talked to eat (Vietnamese rice) because it is the only rice available," Martin explains. "They prefer U.S. rice because it has a better flavor and taste."
He says the goal of the trade mission to make Missouri rice available for the people of Cuba. "This would create a whole new market for our rice," he adds.
Cuba was once a significant export destination for Missouri-grown rice. The Governor notes that increasing rice exports would be another boost for the regional and state economies. "Missouri is moving forward to take advantage of this opportunity, particularly when it comes to rice, one of the staples of the Cuban diet," Nixon says.
As part of the focus on Missouri exports, the trade delegation will visit the new deep-water port at Mariel, Cuba, which has expanded capacity to receive large cargo ships. Missouri products, particularly grain, often are transported down the Mississippi River by barge to the Gulf of Mexico and then to overseas markets by sea-going cargo ships. As part of his trade mission to the Republic of Panama in March, the Governor went to the newly expanded Panama Canal, a major transportation route for U.S. grain exports.
Why the mission matters
Next week's trade delegation will also include First Lady Georganne Nixon, Missouri Department of Agriculture Director Richard Fordyce and Missouri Department of Economic Development Director Mike Downing. Other members of the delegation include individuals from education, business and agriculture. Gary Wheeler CEO of the Missouri Soybean Association will also be a part of the trade delegation. "For our Missouri soybean growers, key areas of interest for partnership in and with Cuba include the soybean value chain, sustainability initiatives and overall dedication to market development," Wheeler says. "We believe Cuba will be a valuable market for meal, oil and food products, as well as for some whole beans, based on current and potential processing infrastructure."
In March 2015, Mrs. Nixon represented the State of Missouri in leading a trade mission to Cuba with members of the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba. It was the first official trade mission from the United States after President Obama announced the decision to normalize diplomatic relations with Cuba in December 2014. The Governor was unable to travel on that trade mission because of the funeral of State Auditor Thomas Schweich.
Prior to the first trip the Governor had this to say about opening up trade with Cuba: "We cannot ignore 11 million potential customers for products just 90 miles from our shores. This is a trade competition that U.S. farmers should and will be winning."