Sensing a major new source of exports for Minnesota producers, a group of state lawmakers want $100,000 to help small farmers tap into opportunities presented by more open trade relations between the U.S. and Cuba.
"I think there is an opportunity for the best family farmers in the world here in Minnesota to expand the markets in Cuba as the restrictions are being lifted," Rep. Jack Considine, DFL-Mankato, said Tuesday. "I would like to see us get down there first."
Gov. Mark Dayton plans to lead a trade mission to Mexico, Minnesota's number two trading partner, in August. A trade mission to Cuba would likely have to wait until the embargo is fully ended, but Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said Tuesday that Dayton does consider Cuba a potential destination for a trade mission.
President Obama in December issued an executive order to open business, trade and travel relationships with the island 90 miles off Florida that has remained under Communist rule for more than half a century. Sen. Amy Klobuchar recently took the lead on a U.S. Senate effort to lift the Cuban trade embargo completely. That would eliminate any remaining legal barriers to Americans who want to do business in Cuba.
Considine's bill would provide $50,000 from the state in 2016 and again in 2017, aimed at helping Minnesota farmers tap that emerging market. He said the first installment could help fund a Minnesota trade mission to Cuba, while the rest could spread what's learned on that trip to small farmers and business owners.
Influential Minnesota companies are already working the issue. Cargill is urging an end to the embargo, and will send a group of executives to Havana this month to meet with Cuban government officials. Advocates of Considine's proposal said it would give smaller farmers and business owners a foot in the door, too.
"We do not have the export division or budget that large corporations can use to explore new markets," said Ralph Kaehler, a St. Charles, Minn., cattle farmer who was able to sell livestock to Cuba in recent years through exemptions in the embargo.
Kaehler and members of his family traveled to Cuba in 2002. His son, Cliff Kaehler, now runs Novel Energy Solutions, a Rochester-based solar energy firm.
Cliff Kaehler said that of Canada, Mexico and Cuba, "Two are huge trading partners, and a third we can hardly trade with. It doesn't take a lot of logic to realize Cuba is a completely untapped market. Are we going to be the state that capitalizes on this huge market?"
Considine's bill has support from Republicans and Democrats in the state House and Senate. On Tuesday, the House Agriculture Committee voted to recommend it for possible inclusion in the larger agricultural spending bill.
In addition to Klobuchar and Minnesota state lawmakers, the opening of Cuba has grabbed the attention of other Minnesota policymakers. U.S. Democratic Reps. Collin Peterson, Rick Nolan and Keith Ellison are pushing a House companion to Klobuchar's bill. Rep. Betty McCollum traveled to Cuba last summer, and has since sponsored legislation to end funding of American propaganda efforts against the country.