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Minnesota ag leaders head to Cuba

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By Scott Wente

St. Paul Capitol Bureau

ST. PAUL - Minnesota companies already export agricultural goods, including livestock, to Cuba but a state delegation is headed there to plant seeds for increased trade.

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Officials leaving Saturday on a five-day trip to Havana say Minnesota is positioning itself to meet the island country's growing food and agriculture needs.

Minnesota exported more than $18 million of agricultural products to Cuba in 2007. That included corn, soybeans, wheat, beans, dairy cattle and a distilled grain product from corn-based ethanol that is used as livestock feed.

"That's not insignificant," said Agriculture Commissioner Gene Hugoson, who is leading the delegation. "But the bigger issue is what's going to happen down the road when U.S.-Cuban relations finally get to the point of being normal."

U.S. trade sanctions limit sales to agricultural and medical products, Hugoson said, but Minnesota can expand its trade exports to Cuba.

The trip comes less than a year after Hugoson and others visited Cuba on a similar trade mission. That trip certainly did not gain the attention that then-Gov. Jesse Ventura received when he led the first Minnesota trade delegation to Cuba in 2002.

Ventura made headlines for his private meeting with former dictator Fidel Castro, but members of the upcoming mission also credited Ventura with helping to instigate a trade dialogue.

Hugoson will be joined by state officials, representatives from private companies such as Cargill and two legislators, Reps. Doug Magnus and Al Juhnke. The trade mission includes farm tours and a meeting with the top official at Alimport, the agency that decides Cuba's food imports.

Minnesota leaders see two possible areas of export growth: Cuba's domestic demand for food and agriculture products and its burgeoning tourism industry.

Magnus, R-Slayton, said Cuba's tourism industry presents immediate trade opportunities, citing vacationing Canadians and Europeans.

"They come in and want better, different foods, and they're willing to pay for it," he said.

That includes high-end food products, such as select beef and pork cuts.

Magnus, who in his work outside the Capitol has been involved in over 30 agricultural trade missions, said officials need to gauge Cuba's interest in importing agricultural products in the long term as well.

Minnesota's $18.3 million in exports to Cuba was only a fraction of the $431 million in American products sold last year to the country about 90 miles from Florida.

Just as U.S. exports to Cuba are expected to increase, this likely will not be the final Minnesota trade trip to Cuba.

"I would expect we'll be there at least once a year and quite frankly we need to be there," Hugoson said. "That's just kind of the way this works."

The repeat trips make sense, Magnus said, because Cubans, like others in Latin America, want to meet with trade partners in person.

"You've got to build relationships," he said. "They want to know you and have some history with you. I think it's wise because it takes time."

Minnesota's location gives it both trade advantages and disadvantages. Commodities can be shipped on the Mississippi River, but Minnesota cannot compete with the prices of some goods exported by southern states, such as poultry produced in Georgia.

Juhnke, DFL-Willmar, leads a House agriculture finance committee. He said Minnesota meat and poultry companies like Jennie-O, located in his hometown, and Hormel will benefit from continued trade with Cuba.

"Maybe we see Spam down there," Juhnke said.

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