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US Rice Producers Watch Cuba Trade Talks
As U.S. Rep. Marion Berry attends agriculture trade talks this week in Cuba, Arkansas rice producers and others are hoping restrictions on trade to the Communist nation will be lifted.

Dropping current rules that require all purchases be paid in advance could let growers enter a market estimated to consume 700,000 tons of rice a year, of which only 79,000 tons came from the United States last year, said Greg Yielding, executive director of the Arkansas Rice Growers Association. That new market could buoy an industry whose European markets dwindled after discoveries of unapproved strains of genetically modified rice.

"Cuba could dwarf that," Yielding said. "We're just getting just a little bit of their capacity right now. The reason for that is the economic sanctions that we have to endure."

In Arkansas last year, farmers harvested 1.4 million acres of rice, worth more than $892 million, U.S. Department of Agriculture statistics show. Meanwhile, the state exported only $1.4 million worth of goods to the island nation last year, said Scooter Hardin, a spokesman for the Arkansas Economic Development Commission.

Hardin said the U.S. trade rules on Cuba limit how goods can be sold, particularly the Treasury Department's requirement that all be purchased in cash in advance of their delivery.

The rule, put in place in 2000 and later clarified in 2005, burst a one-year bubble of increased trade with Cuba, Hardin said. A commission report shows the state exported $21.6 million in meat products and about $10 million in grain exports in 2004. That dropped down to $2.7 million in total exports in 2005, after the rule clarification.

"They began enforcing it," Hardin said. "2005 reflects that."

Now, U.S. producers have a unique opportunity to enter Cuba's rice market, said Keith Glover, president and chief executive officer of Producers Rice Mill at Stuttgart, a farmer-owned cooperative. Glover said ocean freight rates jumped in the last few months, making shipping to Cuba from the Asian rice market even more expensive.

"It really makes U.S. rice very competitive now," he said. "U.S. rice has a premium with the value of the rice, but the freight rates are such an advantage."

Expanding exports could help another Arkansas company as well. Cuba represents 3 percent of Springdale-based Tyson Foods Inc.'s chicken leg quarter exports, said spokesman Gary Mickelson, making it the company's fifth largest destination for the dark-meat product.

Berry, D-Ark., arrived Monday in Havana as part of a delegation of five congressional members attending the agricultural summit that lasts through Wednesday. Berry, whose father's own rice deal collapsed after the Castro-led revolution in 1959, has supported lifting U.S. trade embargoes against the nation.

Berry, as well as U.S. Rep. Mike Ross, D-Ark., are co-sponsors on a bill proposed in the House to eliminate the 45-year trade embargo on Cuba. The bill remains in committee.

For Yielding, he said he understands the idea behind the embargo, but believes it should only apply to high-end electronics and other products that can be used to support the government. Otherwise, Cuba will continue to import its rice from China, Vietnam and Thailand, which also have poor human rights records, he said.

Opening the food market benefits the Cuba's poor -- as well as U.S. rice growers, he said.

"I think that history has showed us economic sanctions when it comes to food don't work. Why would you want to starve the people?" he said. "Why would you want to do that and build up even more resentment to the United States?"
MGR Archive 31.5.2007
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