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Jim Purfeerst, center, of Faribault, traveled to Cuba recently as part of an agricultural mission trip. Also pictured are Tim Alcorn, left, executive director of the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program, and Mike Liepold.

Jim Purfeerst, a farmer from Faribault, was part of the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership Program international mission to Cuba in February.

The group’s agenda during its nine days 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.

Florida provided a preamble for the group of the culture and agriculture it would see in Cuba. The group spent Monday and Tuesday in Florida to learn about U.S. agricultural industries comparable to those it would see in Cuba.

They also met with Cuban immigrants and their descendants in Miami.

“This was a valuable experience for MARL participants,” said Tim Alcorn, MARL executive director. “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.”

MARL program leader Mike Liepold said the current state of U.S. and Cuban relations impacted the trip.

“It was like being in time travel. There was 100 years of technology differences living side by side everywhere,” Liepold said.

“There were 1950 Chevys all over. We saw 20,000-acre farms next to people working fields with oxen. We saw homes constructed with marble interiors and basic one-room houses in the country.

We met with government farm managers and workers as well as a few independent growers. It was meeting with the Cuban people that we found especially memorable.”

Examples of food distribution system stops include a farmers market where Cubans with higher incomes purchase food to supplement the rations of staples provided by the government.

The group also saw portions of the Cuban agricultural production systems, including a state-run farm called Finca Cimex, where vegetables and ornamental plants, primarily cactus, are grown.

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 in the future.

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 because of transportation advantages.

However, the barrier to shipping beef, dairy and many other products into Cuba is price. The route 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 in the country, who come primarily from Canada and Europe, with a smaller percentage from Mexico and South American countries.

The MARL Program is a public-private partnership. Southwest Minnesota State University administers it and the University of Minnesota Extension coordinates the curriculum. The program is privately funded. Class members pay a participation fee, but most funding comes from contributions from private-sector associations, organizations, businesses, corporations, foundations and individuals.

By: Kay Fate


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