WILLMAR -- A 90-mile flight from Miami, Fla., to Havana, Cuba, brought 36 rural Minnesotans on what seemed like a trip back in time, but left them yearning for what the future might hold.
Participants in the fifth Minnesota Agriculture Rural Leadership program -- including several from west central Minnesota -- spent eight days touring the western half of the island nation on Feb. 17-25. If relations between the U.S. and the communist country are normalized, the future could bring trade opportunities for American farmers, they said. U.S. farmers along the Gulf of Mexico could readily replace Vietnam as the primary source for white rice, a staple of the Cuban diet, according to Roger Imdieke, a heifer and dairy producer from New London.
Imdieke also sees the potential for American livestock producers to supply the finer cuts of beef to be served in Cuba's expanding tourism industry. The country of just over 11.4 million people already hosts 2 million visitors a year, most of them from Canada and Europe.
He also believes that ethanol plants in Minnesota could find markets for distiller's dried grains in Cuba. Corn and soybean growers might also supply other feedstock needs there, he said.
The tour also left him and others wondering if time had been frozen in many places, and not just because of all those 1950s vintage American cars still plying the streets of Havana.
At one point the astonished Minnesotans persuaded the tour bus driver to stop so that they could talk to a farmer tilling his field with oxen, according to Becky Bruns, a pullet producer from Danube. They discovered that harnessed oxen and horses are very common on the country's small farms, she said.
"Low input'' is how Jim Molenaar, Ridgewater College vocational agriculture instructor in Willmar, described many of the Cuban farming practices they witnessed.
The country offers two styles of agriculture. There are large, state-run farms equipped with Russian tractors and other mechanical equipment.
Since the 1990s, the country has also instituted reforms that allow small farmers to sell a portion of their produce. The smaller farms supply a large share of the fruits, vegetables, poultry and pork available at farmer's markets.
People rely on the markets and community gardens to supplement their monthly rations of rice, sugar, coffee, bread and dairy for children.
"There was clearly a free enterprise system going on there,'' said Imdieke.
But make no mistake: The government controls economic activities. Bruns said she returned to the U.S. with a greater appreciation for the freedoms we enjoy. The limited opportunity for entrepreneurism leads to "mediocrity,'' she said.
In contrast, Minnesota Agriculture Rural Leadership members said they heard from many Cubans who are aghast that a country as rich as America allows people to be hungry and homeless.
Cubans make do with limited resources, according to Tim Sullivan, a grain farmer from southern Renville County. Most of the tractors they saw were on state-owned farms, and were older, Russian models. Most were parked on inclines: They no longer had starters, he said.
Bruns has traveled to places as diverse as Greece, Turkey and Germany, and has never felt as safe as she did in Cuba. Buildings in cities were typically 1950s-vintage or older, yet streets were kept clean. Said Sullivan: "People took pride in everything.''
No matter where they went, the American visitors were welcomed by the Cubans, who made the distinction that their anger is with the U.S. government and the embargo it has enforced since 1961.
Cubans are able to buy some American goods, but the limited trade is cumbersome. It's on a cash-only basis and must be handled by a third country, usually Spain.
Minnesota Agriculture Rural Leadership participants said the trip left them doubtful that the embargo would be lifted in one full sweep.
They met with Cuban émigrés in Florida and learned first-hand how strong the emotions are to continue the current stance against Cuba.
Their fellow passengers on the plane ride back to Miami were Cubans leaving the communist country behind them. They broke into applause as the plane landed, said the Minnesota Agriculture Rural Leadership participants.