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Kari Howe, center, of Bemidji last month was part of a delegation to Cuba as a participant in the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program at Marshall, Minn. At left is MARL Executive Director Tom Alcorn while at right is MARL program leader Mike Liepold. Submitted Photo

Kari Howe takes part in mission to Cuba

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MARSHALL, Minn. -- Kari Howe, regional economic development program specialist with the Minnesota Department of Employment and Economic Development, was part of the Minnesota Agriculture and Rural Leadership program international mission to Cuba Feb. 15 - 25

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Howe of Bemidji was a member of the 36-person MARL Class V delegation that departed from Minneapolis for Miami on Feb. 15.

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.

The charter flight from Miami to Havana departed on Wednesday.

"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. The trip was truly a life-changing experience," he said.

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 over $1 billion if the current travel ban were ended.

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. Also, a grocery much like a U.S. supermarket, but with far more limited types and quantities of food available, including processed and frozen foods. The market and store were busy, but only a small percentage of Cubans can afford to purchase food at either business.

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 time spent learning about the cane sugar industry in Florida proved beneficial as a stop was made at a closed cane sugar mill. Nearly half of the mills in Cuba were shuttered from 2000-2009. While the local mill was closed, cane is still produced in the area for processing at a different mill 200 kilometers away.

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 simply because of transportation advantages.

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

The state of relations with Cuba is an ongoing political process in the U.S. Congress. While the MARL group was in Cuba, U.S. Rep. Collin Peterson, chairman of the U.S. House Agriculture Committee, was preparing legislation for introduction to make the sale of agricultural products to Cuba easier. Also included in the bill is language to ease the tight travel restrictions that prevent most U.S. citizens from being allowed to travel to Cuba.

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 the majority of funding comes from contributions from private sector associations, organizations, businesses, corporations, foundations, and individuals provide the majority of the funds to operate the program.

Two-thirds of the participants are agricultural producers and the other third are agribusiness people and other types of rural leaders.

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