OAKWOOD — A Vermilion County farmer who returned from Cuba this week says he sees a potential market for Illinois corn there, as well as opportunities for exchanging agricultural knowledge.
Kevin Green, who farms between Fithian and Oakwood, was one of 18 farmers who visited Cuba from June 28 to July 2 as part of an Illinois Farm Bureau delegation.
Green said he was surprised by many things in Cuba, including the ease of communicating in English, the prevalence of cell phones and the existence of two monetary systems — one for Cubans and another for tourists.
"The goal of our market-study tour was to identify potential markets — potential areas where we could exchange information as well as goods — and we succeeded in that," Green said.
Cuba doesn't "grow corn at all, so there's a huge market for bulk corn, corn oil, corn meal" and the solids left over when corn is made into ethanol, he said. Those solids can be used for animal feed.
The U.S. has had a 50-year-old embargo on trade with Cuba, but the ban was softened a decade ago to allow exports of agricultural goods and medicine.
However, Cuba must pay cash for those products.
Green said Cuba uses a lot of soybean oil and U.S. companies have shipped huge volumes of soybeans there.
"The challenge (for Cuba) isn't buying corn and beans from us," he said. "It's that they pay us with U.S. dollars, and that has to be prepaid and they're cash-strapped.
"They want credit, but the U.S. is not willing to let them have credit at this point in time," he added.
Cubans are also interested in getting more dairy products from the U.S., Green said.
"They're desperately short of milk," he said. "Anything that can be done to increase the number and size of their few dairy herds would be appreciated." Green outlined two forms of agriculture in Cuba.
First, there are urban food cooperatives that grow fruits and vegetables. They're pretty much free enterprise. What the growers produce, they can eat or sell.
Then, there are rural farms that still seem to be owned by the government, even though the land has been broken up into smaller plots for farmers.
"The food grown on those plots, a good portion of it is sold to the government at rock-bottom prices to supply to schools and hospitals," Green said. "What doesn't go to the government, the farmers can use themselves or sell."
Growers in the urban food cooperatives seemed interested in exchanging information with the U.S. — namely, what garden concepts work better in tropical environments, ideas about irrigation and information on the nutritional value of organic fruits and vegetables.
The urban cooperatives don't have access to modern herbicides and insecti- cides, and the people there seemed committed to organic, sustainable agriculture, Green said.
Green said more Cubans are being allowed to buy land and own homes. And although "no religion was being taught" in Cuba for 50 years, there are a variety of churches, predominantly Catholic, operating in Cuba today, he said.
"No matter where we went, the people were very interested in American politics," he said. "We were asked quite a few questions about the two men running for president. They asked about the Cuban-Americans in Miami, what our homes were like. They like seeing people from the U.S. in their country."
Green said he "spoke enough Spanish to get by, so I would chat with them. They were very friendly people, receptive to Americans."
He said he was intrigued with the government's taxi fleet, which includes Chevrolets from the 1950s, as well as newer Toyotas and Suzukis.
Although many Cubans have cellphones — including one man who had the same ringtone as Green — the common Cuban doesn't have Internet access, Green said.
Tourists use Cuban pesos that are equal to a U.S. dollar, but the everyday Cuban uses a peso that is worth only a 24th of that, Green said.
"The people get their wages paid in those. An IT specialist who works for the government might make the equivalent of $25 a month," Green said.
Green, a scuba enthusiast, said he wanted to go diving in Cuba and arranged to do so — but didn't have enough time for it. Instead, he squeezed in 45 minutes of snorkeling.
"I would go back," he said. "When I go back, I'd like to get more into the rural areas. I'd like to get into the base roots of the food system and see what future market opportunities may lie there."