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Vilsack: U.S. Relationship With Cuba Begins With Agriculture

Amy Mayer
Harvest Public Media

The path to normalized relations between the United States and Cuba made a stop in farm country Friday.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and his Cuban counterpart, Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, toured Aaron Lehman’s corn and soybean farm in central Iowa. They talked about water, soil, and energy and compared strategies for managing hog manure, which has been a problem in Iowa.

Vilsack said he hopes Cuba can increasingly be an export market for farm products like soybeans, rice and, eventually, poultry.

“There is a tremendous opportunity for us to have a solid relationship between our two countries,” Vilsack said, “beginning with agriculture.”

Congress has the ultimate authority to revoke the embargo the U.S. has had against Cuba for decades, but the Obama administration has been chipping away at the long-strained relationship. Vilsack said increased connections between the countries, including an agreement signed between the agriculture departments, is boosting America’s image in Latin America and elsewhere.

“This has been positively received by other countries,” Vilsack said. “It creates a greater credibility for the U.S. that we reach out to Cuba.”

Cuba recently accepted a 20-ton shipment of rice grown in Missouri. Cuba is an important ally for the U.S. on some hot-button international agriculture issues, such as food safety and animal health regulations, Vilsack said.

The Cuban delegation also visited DuPont Pioneer while in Iowa and Vilsack said part of the reason he invited Rodriguez Rollero to Iowa was to highlight the region’s rich history with seed development. Rodriguez Rollero said he was impressed with the company’s operations and he hoped the U.S. and Cuba would work together through science and technology to help farmers in both countries improve their practices.

Asked about proposed mergers among several major players in agriculture, Vilsack expressed confidence that any consolidation would not stifle innovation nor curb competition.

“The key here is making sure that we have legal and regulatory systems and market options so that big and small can be supported and enhanced,” he said. “That’s our heritage and I see no reason why we would move away from that.”

Vilsack said agriculture also needs to continue diversifying in this country, including the size and crops of farms and who is doing the farming. He said for Cubans, who grow most of their crops without pesticides, the American organic market might present some opportunity.

“I happen to think the future of American agriculture, and Cuban agriculture, is incredibly bright.”

Amy Mayer is a reporter based in Ames. She covers agriculture and is part of the Harvest Public Media collaboration. Amy worked as an independent producer for many years and also previously had stints as weekend news host and reporter at WFCR in Amherst, Massachusetts and as a reporter and host/producer of a weekly call-in health show at KUAC in Fairbanks, Alaska. Amy’s work has earned awards from SPJ, the Alaska Press Club and the Massachusetts/Rhode Island AP. Her stories have aired on NPR news programs such as Morning Edition, All Things Considered and Weekend Edition and on Only A Game, Marketplace and Living on Earth. She produced the 2011 documentary Peace Corps Voices, which aired in over 160 communities across the country and has written for The New York Times, Boston Globe, Real Simple and other print outlets. Amy served on the board of directors of the Association of Independents in Radio from 2008-2015.
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