Could Farmers Cash in on More Open Trade With Cuba?

American farmers are missing out on potentially tens of millions of dollars in sales every year to buyers in Cuba, Gov. Peter Shumlin, D-Vermont, said, as he pushed Congress to lift trade sanctions against the Caribbean island nation.

"This doesn't make any sense," Shumlin said of trade rules he called "outdated." "Vermont farmers, as an example, are losing out on the ability to sell the best milk in the world to Cuba because of these ridiculous trade sanctions. Let's lift them, let's get on with it; it's time to treat Cuba the way we do any other foreign nation."

This week, Shumlin, along with the governors of Alabama, California, Idaho, Minnesota, Montana, Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Washington, sent a letter to majority and minority leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, asking them to normalize relations.

A prime reason, the letter said, is to create new opportunities for American farmers to export dairy and other agricultural commodities. Shumlin told necn that last year, New Zealand and European countries shipped more than $160-million dollars in dairy exports to Cuba.

However, the letter noted, "Thus far, our country's agriculture sector has led the way in reestablishing meaningful commercial ties with Cuba, but a sustainable trade relationship cannot be limited to one sector or involve only one-way transactions."

Ending trade restrictions with Cuba could open up an 11-million person market for industries including dairy, renewable energy, consumer and manufactured goods, technology, tourism and others, Shumlin said.

The letter acknowledged it is legal to export farm products to Cuba under current rules, but explained that practically, it can be hard, because of financing restrictions.

"They have to pay cash up front," said Rep. Peter Welch, D-Vermont, who shares Shumlin's interest in opening Cuba up to more trade with the U.S.

Welch said U.S. companies looking to grow their business with meaningful and regular exports need to be able to offer standard credit terms to Cuban buyers, which they currently cannot do.

"All other countries have credit," Welch said. "And we've got to make that happen in order, I think, for us to have a shot of having significant exports of dairy to Cuba."

Mateo Kelher's Jasper Hill Farm ripens award-winning cheeses in Greensboro Bend, Vermont. Kelher called any potential increase in dairy exports a boon for the industry.

"If we're able to create new markets, large and small, home and abroad, that's going to benefit Vermont dairy farmers and our working landscapes," Kelher said.

Rep. Welch called Congress "dysfunctional" right now, but said agriculture is often an area of bipartisan agreement since Republicans and Democrats alike have constituents who farm. Because of that, Welch said he is optimistic Congress will get somewhere with this issue.

Vermont Gov. Peter Shumlin says it's about time that the United States lift trade sanctions against Cuba. He and the other governors wrote a letter to leaders in the U.S. House and Senate, asking them to normalize relations.

Below is the full text of the governors' letter to members of Congress.

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