By DENNIS GRUBAUGH, the Illinois Business Journal
The miles and miles of soybean fields that sprout annually throughout Illinois represent some of the best the state has to offer the U.S. agriculture industry. Now, that notion is being planted in Cuba.
Efforts are under way on several fronts to help the state take advantage of the easing of relations between the two countries. The biggest proposed step — lifting a trade embargo that’s been in effect nearly 55 years — could be a boon for growers and the livestock industry in general — as well as multiple other business concerns.
“This is the one issue, I’ve never seen anything like it, where the ag industry is completely behind this,” said Mark Albertson.
Recently returned from a lobbying effort in Washington, D.C., Albertson is anxious to talk about potential business for the Illinois Soybean Association. He’s director of strategic market development for the association, which represents both the Illinois Soybean Growers, an advocacy group, and the Illinois soybean checkoff, a contribution arm that funds research and promotion. In his work regarding Cuba, he is representing only the growers group.
“A lot has been going on the last few days, but a lot has been going on for the last few years,” he said.
“We’ve been to Cuba four times in the last three years. We’ve also been active in building coalitions. The first was the Illinois Cuba Working Group. That coalition was created at the request of the Illinois General Assembly, which last year unanimously called for an end to the embargo and creation of the Working Group.”
Supporters quickly realized that Illinois’ efforts could better be promoted through a national working group.
“Everything really took off over the summer. We have more than 30 groups signed on, and more are signing on every day,” Albertson said.
The national group is called the U.S. Ag Coalition for Cuba. It’s a “group of groups,” representing just about every commodity produced in the country, he said.
Among the members are the National Oilseed Processors Association, which is made up of all the major soybean processors, and The Chicken Council, comprised of the major chicken-producing companies.
Soybeans are an extension of the livestock industry.
“Most of our soy in the U.S. is used by chickens. If not by chickens, it’s used by pigs. If not pigs, then beef and dairy. We stand behind the livestock industry 100 percent,” Albertson said.
The main point of the national group’s charter is ending the embargo.
“The president came out Dec. 17 saying he would do what he could through executive action to make it easier to export. But what it’s really going to take is congressional action.”
“We’ve been on the Hill talking to folks. It’s been very receptive,” Albertson said. He called southwestern Illinois Congressman Rodney Davis, R-Taylorville, one of the group’s biggest allies.
Davis has gone all out for the coalition’s efforts, “not just going to bat for us but sticking his neck out,” Albertson said. “He’s an up and coming star in the Republican Party and he is a leader on this issue. I can see why some Republicans don’t want Obama to get some kind of victory, but Rodney Davis has really been able to put partisan politics aside and look at some of the common sense issues And Rodney has been to Cuba. He knows the issue and taken the time to understand it.”
Davis traveled to Cuba in 2005 as part of his duties as aide to U. S. Rep. John Shimkus, R-Collinsville.
“The only way to weaken the Castro regime is by strengthening Cuba’s middle class which can only be done by lifting outdated trade and travel restrictions that have led to further isolation and oppression of the people of Cuba,” Davis said in the wake of Obama’s initial announcement.
“As the second-largest exporter in agriculture commodities, Illinois relies on trade relations that allow our products to be sold to the rest of the world. So at a time when America is yearning for more manufacturing jobs and to produce more, improving trade relations with Cuba will only further this goal while helping to empower the people of Cuba,” Davis said.
Albertson said most polls show the embargo has been a failure, trade wise, and American agriculture has been successful despite it.
“Believe it or not, in 2009 and 2010, Cuba was the world’s fifth-largest market for U.S poultry; Unfortunately those numbers have declined because of the uncompetitive restrictions the U.S. has put on agricultural experts to Cuba,” Albertson said.
“We want to get that market back. We don’t mind competing against Brazil and Argentina for the Chinese market but it’s downright embarrassing to be uncompetitive in our own backyard.”
Cuba must pay more to get livestock shipments sent in from distances further than the U.S., he noted, and recognizes U.S. products are “unsurpassed. They would like to use more of them.”
If the embargo is officially lifted, even during this year, agriculture industry will see the result.
“While in Cuba we met with a wide variety of people from buyers to diplomats to everyday Cubans,” Albertson said. “Everyone is interested in improving diplomatic relations with the United States. The U.S. embargo is on their mind every day because it affects Cubans’ quality of life.”
The peak for American goods shipped to Cuba came in was 2008, when some $710 million were shipped, according to the U.S. Trade and Economic Council Inc.
“Today, we have less than a third of that. And so there’s nothing stopping us from getting back to where we were before in 2007 and surpassing that even more. When it comes to our soy exports, to Mexico for instance, we have nearly 100 percent market share,” Albertson said. “It would only make sense, because of our geographic proximity to Cuba we should have nearly 100 percent market share in Cuba as well.”
It is hard to gauge just how much soy product comes from Illinois as it leaves the country. Much of it is comingled with shipments from other states as it moves along the Illinois and Mississippi River toward exporting terminals at the Gulf of Mexico.
Illinois ranks No. 1 in soybean product in the country, two years running, so it has as much to gain as anyone in trade with Cuba, he said.
Illinois, which serves all five Class 1 railroads in the United States, is considered the agriculture hub of the Midwest.
Former Gov. George Ryan became the first U.S. embargo-era governor to visit Cuba on a trade mission when he visited there in 1999. He met with then-President Fidel Castro — an overture considered important because it showed new interest in establishing normal relations.
“Everybody’s going to be clamoring to go down there and do business,” Ryan recently told the Associated Press. “That’s the thing I tried to sell when I went down there.”
Illinois Sen. Dick Durbin recently returned from a Congressional delegation trip to Cuba. In a statement, he says he remains hopeful of fully restoring relations, but he said it won’t be easy.
“We have to be realistic about the prospects for fully lifting the embargo on Cuba with legislation in a Congress where a single senator can scuttle it. But the American people are ready for this change and my colleagues and I are committed to getting it done.”