Establishing Solid Ground for Growth With Cuba
“It all starts with a seed.”
That’s an observation Cuba’s Minister of Agriculture, Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, made on an Iowa farm just over a week ago, during his first-ever visit to the United States. Minister Rodriguez and I have had the opportunity to plant several seeds as the U.S. and Cuba work to regrow our diplomatic relationship, and after two visits to his country since November 2015, it was my honor to host him in my home state of Iowa.
Re-establishing diplomatic ties with Cuba can — and must — have mutual benefits for both countries, and in no industry is that more apparent than in agriculture. Cuba’s farmers have made clear that they are very interested in access to America’s farming technology, and in fact the first American factory to open in Cuba is making tractors for Cuba’s farmers. Several American food and agriculture business leaders have visited Cuba since the Administration loosened trade and travel restrictions, and in March USDA began permitting industry-funded Research and Promotion programs to engage in cooperative research and information exchanges with Cuba about agricultural productivity, food security and sustainable natural resource management.
Minister Rodriguez’s visit to Iowa, America’s #2 state for agriculture exports and home to a full spectrum of farming operations, gave him the opportunity to experience the diversity of opportunity that agriculture presents, and allowed him to see where we can more closely interact in the future. We began the day learning about crop variety research at Dupont Pioneer’s greehnouse in Johnston, before moving to fifth-generation farmer Aaron Lehman’s organic farm in Polk City. Aaron thoughtfully described the process and risks involved with transitioning from conventional to organic farming, detailing the support for conservation, renewable energy, and risk management his farm receives from USDA. Minister Rodriguez was keenly interested in the gradual transition approach that Aaron had chosen, rather than transitioning all his acres to organic production at once.
We spent the afternoon first at Iowa State University’s Seed Science Center, where researchers spoke at length about the United States’ federal investment into food production research and the education of our future scientists, followed by a roundtable discussion where Minister Rodriguez raised questions and exchanged ideas with some of Iowa’s agriculture leaders. Finally, we concluded the visit at Lincolnway Energy in Nevada, Iowa, demonstrating how Iowans and all of America are benefitting from technology that allows us to make energy and other everyday materials out of renewable agricultural products.
In March, during my second visit to Cuba and second meeting with Minister Rodriguez, he and I signed a Memorandum of Understanding that in part led to this visit. It truly is a gift to have the chance to form a solid relationship between our two countries, and pave the way with agriculture, because there is so much in common between us: a belief in science, a concern about small farmers, commitment to sustainable production, and the list continues on.
I sincerely hope Congress will take advantage of this opportunity to see the progress made between the United States and Cuba, and decide to lift the embargo. We have a lot to learn from each other, and if we can continue down the road toward collaboration, we will be a stronger and better country because of it. We’ve begun to break those barriers, but there is still work to do. I believe it is of utmost importance to lead by example and showcase the overwhelming advantages to collaborating with Cuba through agriculture. The future of American and Cuban agriculture is incredibly bright, and only more so if we are able to work together.
Header photo: Cuban Minister of Agriculture Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack and Aaron Lehman, Lehman Family Farm tour the Lehman Family Farm in Polk City, IA Friday, June 3, 2016. USDA photo by Darin Leach.