While many sectors of the U.S. ag economy could benefit from expanded trade with Cuba, based on the commodities its government has purchased historically, U.S. rice is probably front and center among those, says U.S. Sen. Jerry Moran of Kansas.
But whether increased sales of rice or any other commodities to Cuba can become a reality may depend on the winner of this fall’s presidential election and on the level of opposition in Congress, particularly in the House of Representatives.
Trade with Cuba was one of a number of topics Sen. Moran addressed during the keynote address to the members of Delta Council at the organization’s 81st annual meeting in Cleveland, Miss., Friday, May 20. What began as a “short speech” expanded to cover a wide range of issues that continued into the press conference that followed.
The Kansas senator also talked about the pressing need for members of the Congress to work together to overcome obstacles that have made making progress on those issues almost impossible in recent years.
“This is a diverse country and not all of us agree on everything and, in many instances, not many of us agree on lots of things,” he said. “But Congress is designed to be the place where you bring ideas from across the country; from Mississippi and Kansas, which are often in agreement, to work with people from New York and California, which are often in disagreement with us.
People of good will
“The purpose of the Congress is to bring people of good will together and to fight the fight and to make decisions that are advantageous for the country’s future,” he said, “And we’ll work hard to do that.”
Moran said he is honored to serve in the U.S. Senate with Mississippi’s two U.S. senators. “Sen. Wicker now has the job that I had, chairing the Senate Campaign Committee. He’s now in a much more challenging environment than when I served there two years ago. Sen. Thad Cochran is so highly respected among my colleagues on both sides of the aisle.”
(Cochran is chairman of the Senate Appropriations Committee and Moran is chairman of the Agricultural Appropriations Subcommittee, which makes them two of the most powerful individuals working on agricultural issues in Congress.)
During his press conference, Sen. Moran noted Congress passed legislation in 2001 – 15 years ago – allowing the sale of food, agricultural commodities and medicine to Cuba. Those sales have “ebbed and flowed” over time.
“The regulations to allow that to happen have become more difficult, and we’ve lost market, not gained it, in Cuba during that period of time,” he said. “It increased rapidly when given the opportunity. It’s now diminished, and we’re trying to revive that.”
USDA post in Cuba
The FY2017 agriculture appropriations bill, which the Senate Appropriations Committee passed by a vote of 30-0 on Thursday, May 19, the day before Sen. Moran spoke at the Delta Council annual meeting, contained funding for USDA to establish its first information-gathering post in Cuba in decades.
“What our bill funds is giving USDA the opportunity to put personnel in Cuba to start developing the markets, the relationships and to promote U.S. agricultural commodities,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of benefit that comes to many sectors of the ag economy, but, front and center, based on the commodities Cuba has historically been buying, is U.S. rice.
“We’re creating the dialogue, the conversation and enhancing the opportunity in Cuba by passing this language and putting the people there from USDA to promote U.S. agriculture. The timeframe, like many things in today’s environment, is uncertain.”
The future of trade with Cuba depends, in part, on what the next president’s position is in relation to Cuba. “But this is also a very difficult issue in Congress. Generally, the House has been more opposed to opening opportunities with Cuba; the Senate more willing, and we often wind up fighting these issues out between us.”
Although Moran has no rice farmers in Kansas, he has been one of the leading voices for increasing trade between the U.S. and Cuba. Kansas does grow cotton, and he has also become an advocate for the crop, recently asking Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack to provide more assistance for cotton producers.
USDA Catfish inspections
He also applauded USDA’s efforts to begin its catfish inspection program, a program that Cochran and Wicker have fought to establish in recent years.
“The desire here is to make certain the catfish that are home-grown, produced here in Mississippi, are honored and rewarded by the consumer and not intruded upon by something different than that product,” he noted.
“It’s been a longtime coming, but it looks like the regulations are coming to fruition, and if there’s any continued opposition to that, I would guess it would surface when our bill comes to the Senate floor, and we will be there to defend it.”
To learn more about the Delta Council, visit www.deltacouncil.org.