Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation participates in a trade mission to Cuba by Justin Ferguson

“As many of you know, my husband and I team up on many projects both professionally, and of course on our farm. What you might not know is that my husband, Justin Ferguson, is the National Affairs Coordinator and Row Crop Commodity Coordinator for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation. For this issue, I thought it would be nice to change things up a bit and give him the opportunity to share with our readers about the exciting and unique trip he took earlier this year to Cuba for a trade mission.” Tarah Ferguson

There are times in life when rare opportunities take you to unexpected places you never thought you would go. In early April, the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation, for whom I work, received a call from Governor Phil Bryant’s office requesting our participation in a trade mission to Cuba. Through this trade mission, Governor Bryant wanted to carry a group of business leaders from Mississippi to assess what opportunities might exist with Mississippi companies to do business in Cuba. 

For those of you who are not familiar with Farm Bureau, we are the state’s largest general farm organization. We look out for the interests of Mississippi farmers, ranchers, and landowners by monitoring legislative and regulatory issues. We are sort of the NRA for farmers. One of our major issues is trade. Exports are a big deal for agriculture since about one out of every three acres planted in the U.S. is destined for the export market. 

About 23 percent of raw U.S. farm products are exported each year and account for 31 percent of the U.S. gross farm income.

Most of us are probably familiar with U.S.’s contentious history with Cuba and the Bay of Pigs Invasion and Cuban Missile Crisis which led to a trade embargo with the country during the Cold War. However, with the passing of the Trade Sanctions Reform and Export Enhancement Act of 2000, Congress opened the door to allow U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba with restrictions on credit and financing. Through this trade mission, the delegation wanted to explore the impacts lifting the credit restrictions would have on the expansion in trade of Mississippi products to Cuba. 

Beyond the obvious intent of our visit, I learned some really interesting facts about Cuba. Cuba greatly benefitted from its relationship with the Soviet Union, but when those ties were severed in the mid-to-late ‘80s, Cuba’s progress suffered a blow as well. Although much of the infrastructure was lacking in modernization, it was in better shape than I had imagined. The Castro regime in many ways isolated Cuba from the rest of the world; therefore, the modernization seen in the U.S. is nowhere to be seen in Cuba. When driving down the highway, it was common to see a modern tractor- trailer alongside a vehicle that would be considered an antique to us; and occasionally, in the rural areas of the country, an animal-drawn wagon was seen carrying goods to market.

We spent most of our time in Havana, the beautiful capital city of Cuba. The headquarters of our group for the week was the Hotel Nacional de Cuba, which is the Havana version of The Peabody in Memphis, Tenn. The hotel was built in 1930 and has been the backdrop for many official visitors and guests of the Cuban government. Hosted by Jeffrey DeLaurentis, the U.S. Ambassador to Cuba, we met with various agencies within the Cuban government, who handle trade, foreign investment, and agricultural production. These Cuban agencies conveyed to us their interest to purchase products grown in Mississippi, due to our state’s proximity and their need for food, specifically chicken and rice. 

Additionally, we were allowed to tour the Port of Mariel, which was developed with help from Brazil. This modern-day port is facilitating a more efficient transfer of goods and products with Cuba’s trading partners. We also met with ALIMPORT, which is the Cuban government agency controlling all imports into the country and through which all U.S. agricultural exports must be channeled. From this agency, imported goods are distributed throughout the country as needed.

One day we took a trip to Viñales, which is located in tobacco country. Viñales is a town that is a tourist mecca because of its farm grown and handmade cigars. Cuban cigars are, of course, considered to be of the highest quality in the world in large measure due to the soil’s abundant nutrients and the ideal climate for growing. We had the opportunity to tour a small tobacco farm where we were allowed to have a discussion with the farmer (of course, with the help of our translator). We learned that tobacco farmers were more prosperous as a whole than the average Cuban due to the demand for their superior product.

To our surprise, we learned that the people of Cuba were proud of their country and satisfied with their quality of life. 

Pictured: Mike McCormick, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation

Pictured: Mike McCormick, president of the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation

My most intriguing observation was the signs of capitalism emerging throughout the country. Ambassador DeLaurentis discussed with us how the country now had a strong, growing private sector comprising about one-third of the economy. Much of Cuba’s private sector consists of in-home restaurants, taxi services with repurposed diplomatic vehicles, and new privately-owned hotels in the city. It was obvious to all of us that the free market was a rapidly growing part of the Cuban economy.

Upon returning home, I felt like I had come back to the future. Items I feel like I cannot live without here in the U.S., such as consistent cell phone service and constant access to Wi-Fi, are considered luxuries for people living in Cuba. The experience was truly eye-opening and made me grateful for the “luxuries” I often take for granted here at home. However, I will forever be eternally grateful to the Cubans for teaching me how to keep a classic car running for years on end. The secret … diesel engines. 

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Justin Ferguson

is a native of Coldwater, Mississippi, where he and his wife Tarah, reside now and tend about 75 head of cattle. Justin is the National Affairs Coordinator & Commodity Policy Coordinator for Major Row Crops for the Mississippi Farm Bureau Federation; a position he has held since November 2015. Justin earned a B.B.A. in Accounting and an MBA, both from Delta State University.