US-Cuba thaw could mean growing market for Illinois crops, agriculture, farm leaders say

Industrials Associated Press

Illinois farm groups are looking to Cuba as a growing market for corn, soybeans, pork and other products the state produces, and they see the state's access to rail and river transportation as an advantage to trade with the Caribbean island nation of 11 million consumers.

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The thaw in relations between the United States and Cuba could mean up to $7 million more a year in sales for Illinois farmers in the short term, said Tamara Nelson of the Illinois Farm Bureau. She told the (Bloomington) Pantagraph (http://bit.ly/1GEzWyW ) the long-term potential could be $25 million annually.

"Illinois is set up very well to trade with Cuba because of our access to railroads and rivers," said Mark Albertson of the Illinois Soybean Association. He traveled to Cuba last month for a trade fair as part of the Illinois Cuba Working Group, which was created last year by Illinois lawmakers.

President Barack Obama announced Wednesday the U.S. and Cuba will begin taking steps to restore full diplomatic relations and he'll try to persuade Congress to lift the trade embargo.

Agricultural exports have been an exception to the embargo, but they've been subject to rules requiring cash payments up front before products are shipped. Payments must go through banks in other countries that charge hefty fees for their services.

Other nations with fewer restrictions and easier financing have gained market share in Cuba in recent years.

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The United States sold the majority of Cuba's imported soybean oil and soybean meal in 2007, but now that share has shifted to South America, Albertson said. The United States could reclaim market power if restrictions are lifted, he said.

Corn growers also hope for more sales. "We had a big crop this year. We've got a lot of piles of corn," said Ken Hartman, president of the Illinois Corn Growers Association. "We hope we can get new markets."

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Information from: The Pantagraph, http://www.pantagraph.com