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Willmar area ag leaders travel to Cuba

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MARSHALL -- Ten people from west central Minnesota were part of the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program international mission from Feb. 15 to 25 to Cuba.

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The participants included Roger Imdieke of New London, Jim Molenaar of New London, Joe Borgerding of Belgrade, Becky Bruns of Danube, Tim Sullivan of Franklin, Bruce Tiffany of Redwood Falls and Dave Johnsrud of Starbuck. They were part of a 36-member delegation from the program.

The group spent two days in Florida to learn about U.S. agricultural industries comparable to those it would see in Cuba. The time also allowed the group to meet with Cuban immigrants and their descendents in Miami.

The agricultural stops on the tour included sugar cane production, harvesting, and processing enterprises, a lettuce field where harvesting was taking place and a lettuce packing and distribution house. Finally, the sugar cooperative and Wedgeworth Farms hosted the group for lunch at the Everglades Research and Education Center of the University of Florida.

These experiences had the group ready for their Cuban experience. Tim Alcorn, Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership executive director, said "Our time in Florida was a great primer for the Cuba agriculture we saw. We left Cuba with a far better feel for the economic issues facing the communist country as a result of the U.S. embargo that has been in place since the Cuban revolution in 1959."

The group's agenda in Cuba included stops that helped participants understand the country's food distribution systems, both the staple commodity grain markets for the ration stores and the higher value restaurant and tourist food markets. Both are current markets for Minnesota farmers. Estimates place the growth potential of the market at more than $1 billion if the current travel ban were ended.

The Cuban market also holds good potential for tourism, which translates into demand for higher quality foods, particularly dairy and meat products that Minnesota could provide. Cuban restaurant menus already heavily feature pork, chicken and cheese, but good quality beef and dairy products are in short supply.

The proximity to Cuba gives the U.S. a natural advantage in the delivery of fresh, high-quality food products simply because of transportation advantages. However, the barrier to shipping beef, dairy and many other products into Cuba is price. The route that many products must take to get to Cuba under the U.S. trade embargo makes them extremely expensive, which places U.S. products at a competitive disadvantage when trying to serve the tourists to the country, who come primarily from Canada and Europe, with a smaller percentage from Mexico and South American countries.

While the group was in Cuba, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, D-Minn., chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, was preparing legislation for introduction to make the sale of agricultural products to Cuba easier. Also included in the bill is language to ease the tight travel restrictions on most U.S. citizens.

This is the fifth Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership class to complete an international trip. Applications for the next class are being accepted until March 31. More information is available at www.MARLprogram.org.

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