U.S. tractor company first approved in Cuba for 50 years

First U.S. company allowed in Cuba in 50 years is Alabama-based small tractor company. Specifics behind the approval and plans for Cleber explained.

The first U.S.-owned factory approved to be built and operated in Cuba in over 50 years is Alabama’s small tractor manufacturer, Cleber LLC.

The factory, to be set up in Mariel by 2017, is expected to sell its tractors for less than $10,000 each. Estimates are that some 70 percent of the island nation’s producers farm small acreage.

Cleber is run by long-time business partners Horace Clemmons and Saul Berenthal, who is originally from Cuba. Clemmons, who was preparing to travel to Cuba, spoke to Delta Farm Press in early March. Among his comments:

On the move to Cuba…

“Saul and I have known each other for 40-something years. We started our first business in 1983 and sold it in 1995.

“He’d always said, ‘One of these days we’ll start a business in Cuba.’ So, he called me on Dec. 17, 2014, when the (Obama announcement to restore U.S.-Cuba ties) was made and said ‘It’s time, let’s go do a business in Cuba.’ I said, ‘Okay, what are we going to do?’ He said, ‘Well, maybe we can do software.’

“We were familiar with software businesses – the company we sold had offices in seven countries. But we looked at the situation in Cuba and there aren’t a whole lot of retail operations or internet technology.

“So, we sat down and read what both governments wanted to accomplish; what President Obama and Raul Castro wanted to accomplish. When you read through it, the Number One issue President Castro is trying to resolve is the fact that Cuba imports somewhere between 60 and 80 percent of their food.

“Having grown up in rural north Alabama where my grandfather farmed 40 acres with two mules, I personally witnessed the evolution of the American family farm going from livestock to a single-row tractor. The Cuban government is in the process of returning the land back to the individual farmers instead of it being farmed by the government. By going that route they hope to resolve the problem of having to import so much food.

“So, we realized the best way to help them was to make a tractor.”

On Cleber’s Oggun tractor…

“Well, the important thing with a single-row tractor is being able to see the row from the driver’s seat. The Allis Chalmers Model G is probably the best single-row tractor ever made. The engine was behind and the driver could look down and see the row better. Having tractors with the engine up front means the seat is offset.

“It turned out there were no remaining patents on the Model G so we picked it as a model to start with. We reverse-engineered all the major components on it, put in a different type engine, changed the actual drive system, and upgraded it to the latest agricultural technology.”

Oggún tractor specifications

  • Built-in cooling system.

  • Engine: 18hp-25hp Gas or Diesel.

  • Electrical: 12volt.

  • Hydraulically assisted Left and Right band.

  • Tires: Rear – 8.3-24; Front – 4.00-12.

  • Length: Wheel base 76 inches-Overall 119 inches.

  • Weight: 1350lbs.

  • Steering: General Motors.

  • Fuel: Gasoline.

  • Capacity: 4 gallons.

  • Final Drive: Hydrostatic Transaxle Hydro-Gear ZT-5400 Powertrain.

  • Front-38 inches to 60 inches (2 inch increments).

  • Rear-36 inches to 46 inches (variable increments).

  • Frame: Heavy duty, unitized, tubular steel constructed.

Logistics

On where and how the tractors will be put together…

“We took a proposal to some folks in Mariel to see if they’d be amenable to manufacturing tractors. It was approved up the point where they said ‘Yes, this is a good project. Now, you have to see if the U.S. government will okay your application.’

“It took seven months to get that (U.S.) approval – it came down in early February. So, we’re headed to Cuba on March 9 and will complete the process with the government. The agreement is that they’ll allow us to only assemble the tractors for the first three years. After three years, we must be in full manufacturing.”

Were you surprised to be the first ag-based business granted such approval?

“It seems that every state, every agriculture commissioner has headed down to Cuba to try and sell them something. I think we were the first allowed because we weren’t trying to sell them something so much as establish a partnership, build a tractor factory. The Cubans made it clear from the beginning that they want folks who will partner with them and help grow their economy.

“A tractor from one of the big tractor companies is cost-prohibitive for much of the world. You’re talking $20,000 or $30,000 for a small, new tractor to farm smaller acreage.

“We went to the Cubans and said, ‘Here’s why those tractors cost so much. The manufacturers are vertically integrated, they take out patents. They design each piece of equipment a bit differently. That means they don’t use as many common parts as they could in order to sell more parts at a high mark-up. That means there are markups on the selling price, on parts and on service.’

“We told them we’d not just design a tractor, but an open system manufacturing model. If you look at tractors and light equipment – backhoes, forklifts, trenchers, excavators – they can all be built with some very basic, common components. We told them we wanted to build a whole line of open model agriculture and light construction equipment. The tractor would come first because food is the first need and everything else would come later.

“The design of the tractor frame is easy to shift to make a mini excavator or forklift or whatever. We’ll publish those designs and, at the manufacturing facility, we’ll say ‘well, give us the design or pay us to design it. Then, when we start manufacturing, based on your contribution to the intellectual property, we’ll pay you a fee.’

“The business model we’re using is not to invent anything we don’t have to. We’re working with Liberty Steel out of Fyffe, Ala. Ag Supply out of Garner, N.C., will provide a large number of things like rims, wheels, hubs, steering wheel, gas tanks and the like.”

On the significance of the name ‘Oggun’…

“When we got ready to name the tractor, we figured it would be best to allow someone in Cuba to do it. Oggun is the (Santeria) god of metalwork and protector of the people.

“At first, I wanted to name it ‘Iron Horse Tractor’ in Spanish. Out of that came Oggun.”

Organoponics, purchasing

On what Cuba’s ‘organoponic’ farming is…

“Organoponic is a phrase the Cubans came up with. After the Soviet Union collapsed, the Cubans went through what they call the ‘Special Period.’ They lost their money, they couldn’t get fertilizer until they struck a deal with Venezuela. They were in bad shape economically.

“Out of necessity, they developed good, organic farming methods. They’re currently recognized as a world leader in organic farming. The government wants to continue with those types of small farming operations rather than return to huge plantations.”

How will Cuban farmers finance the purchase of your tractors?

“There are several things going on. One is President Obama took off limits to the amount of money people here in the United States can send to relatives in Cuba. That means the cost of the tractors will be covered by families here.

“There’s also been a significant increase in Cuban tourism. Part of the problem is a lot of any increased food production in Cuba will go to the resorts that cater to tourists. The resorts have already gone to Cuban farmers and said they’ll buy the tractor in order to lock in access to what they produce. 

“There are also a multitude of organizations that assist farmers. We believe there will be two or three of those that will buy the tractors for Cuban farmers.”

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