Sensing a major new source of exports for Minnesota producers, a group of state lawmakers wants $100,000 to help small farmers tap into opportunities presented by the normalization of 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."
In December, President Obama issued an executive order to open business, trade and travel relationships with the island 90 miles of Florida that's lingered under Communist rule for more than half a century. Earlier this month, Sen. Amy Klobuchar 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 in state dollars 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, and the rest to spread what's learned on that trip to small farmers and business owners.
Influential Minnesota companies are already working the issue. Cargill has urged an end to the embargo, and is sending 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 in recent years was able to capitalize on exemptions to the embargo to sell some livestock to Cuba.
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. He said Cuba has the potential to be a trade partner with the U.S. on par with Canada and Mexico.
"Are we going to be the state that capitalizes on this huge market?" Cliff Kaehler said.
Considine's bill has support from Republicans and Democrats in the state House and Senate. On Tuesday, the House Agriculture Committee reviewed the bill before tabling it for possible addition to a 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.