Dorman Grace looks over his north Alabama farm and wonders how chickens may play a role in ending the trade embargo between Cuba and the United States.
Grace, a third-generation poultry and cattle farmer, and others like him, are already able to do business with Cuba under a law passed by Congress in 2000 allowing the sale of humanitarian and agricultural products to the island nation, which slightly eased the trade embargo in place since 1962.
Since the law began to be implemented in 2001, Cuba has imported about $1.55 billion in goods from the United States, according to the U.S.-Cuba Trade and Economic Council. The Cuban market is large: The nation imports half to two-thirds of its staples, according to a July U.S. International Trade Commission report.
Alabama has been aggressively taking advantage since 2003.
The U.S. Commerce Department estimates Cuba will import $300 million to $350 million in goods from the USA this year. Alabama will provide about a third of that, at $100 million to $120 million in goods, according to the state's Department of Agriculture and Industries.
That's consistent with recent history. Alabama businesses exported $100 million or more of goods to Cuba in each of the past three years, according to state figures.
A 2005 Texas A&M study showed Arkansas leading the nation with exports to Cuba, with an estimated $167 million in trade a year. Alabama was second at $120 million, followed by California ($98 million), Iowa ($71 million) and Texas ($54 million). Many Alabama farmers would like to see that business expand further.
"It's a global world we live in," says Grace, 51, whose farm produces about 110,000 chickens a year. "We need markets for what we produce. Unlike the American market, the Cuban market prefers dark meat, so that's beneficial. We trade with countries around the world. Why not Cuba?"
Last year, 66% of the wheat imported by Cuba came from the USA. Other staples imported included: corn, 71%; rice, 77%; poultry, 65%; pork, 42%; soybeans, 100%; and animal feed, 76%, according to a July U.S. International Trade Commission report.
The effort has even reached state-controlled media in Cuba. The Granma daily newspaper, which on its website proclaims it the "Official Organ of the Central Committee of the Communist Party of Cuba," is printed on newsprint made at three south Alabama paper mills, according to Ron Sparks, Alabama's commissioner of Agriculture and Industries.
Grace has worked with Sparks since he was elected commissioner in 2002 on increasing trade with Cuba.
"When I was elected to my first term, the poultry farmers in the state were in a bind. Agriculture as a whole was in a bind," Sparks says. "We needed to expand our markets. Cuba is a natural trading partner. Cuba only raises 30% of what they eat. There are 11 million people in Cuba who need to eat."
Sparks says he knows many people disagree with his position.
"There's a lot of folks in South Florida who have a different opinion than I do," he says. "I hope they see we are trying to make it better for the Cuban people. We're not selling them bullets or tanks or aircraft. We are selling them peanut butter, syrup and shingles."
Sales have been somewhat limited by requirements that Cuba make the payments in full before shipments leave American ports.
Secretary of Commerce Carlos Gutierrez said earlier this year that it would be "naive" to think that easing trade restrictions would improve conditions in Cuba. He spoke about the embargo at a Council of the Americas meeting in Washington.
"The question is not when will the U.S. change its policy. The question is when will the Cuban regime change its policy," he said. "Years of foreign investment have not improved the lives of average Cubans, only the lives of those in power."
Many Alabama farmers, however, see trade as a positive for both countries.
"I love my country, and I think capitalism holds the most promise for the world," says Sam Peak, who owns about 300 acres of timberland in central Alabama. He sells trees through a broker to Cahaba Pressure Treated Forest Products in Brierfield, Ala. The company sells poles and lumber products to Cuba.
"Who knows, maybe expanded trade with Cuba could lay the groundwork for real change in that country," Peak says. "Sooner or later, the markets in Cuba, all the markets, are going to open up."
Roney reports for The Montgomery (Ala.) Advertiser.