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Produce professionals have eye toward future trade with Cuba

The Dec. 17 announcement of a restoration of full diplomatic relations between the United States and Cuba has some produce industry members intrigued with the prospect of future trade with Cuba.

Robert Colescott, president and chief executive officer of Southern Specialties, headquartered in Pompano Beach, FL, said, “As Cuba begins to open for commerce with the U.S. the opportunity will favor the U.S. Exporters supplying Cuba with grains [will] potentially open doors for ports in Louisiana and Houston. I would expect tourism to begin making an impact that will improve the economy and, eventually, create demand for more specialty produce and other traditional fruits and vegetables. It will take several years before we see Cuba become a significant agriculture producer and exporter. Lots of work is necessary on their infrastructure including significant investments in logistics.”

Geno Valdes, vice president of sales and marketing for Southern Specialties, and a second-generation Cuban-American, said, “Fresh produce opportunities will be very exciting if relations with Cuba are truly a reality. Cuban people will want to eat produce they know, such as tomatoes, avocados, mangos and other tropical items.

“Due to its strategic location and rich soil many crops currently grown in Costa Rica and other Central American countries can be grown there,” Valdes continued. “Cuba has experienced farmers, lots of farm land and abundant water. The fact that Cuba has a high literacy rate is also an asset. The port of Miami, currently undergoing a massive drayage and expansion project, is the natural port of entry for Cuban produce. As a company with lots of experience growing and supporting farms in Latin America, Southern Specialties will examine opportunities in Cuba.”

“With both governments now in consideration to open new opportunities for trade, it only makes sense to look at the entire portfolio of products offered,” Craig Uchizono, vice president of Southern Hemisphere for the Giumarra Cos., said.“Everyone will be interested to learn as much as possible for all fresh fruit, vegetable and tropical commodities both countries have to offer.”

Raul Millan, executive vice president and partner of Vision Import Group, headquartered in Los Angeles and a first-generation Cuban-American, said that as a son of Cuban parents, produce trade with Cuba has always been on his mind since beginning his produce career.

“Cuba’s proximity to the U.S. offers an opportunity that cannot be ignored, both in freight savings and transit time,” said Millan. “Cuban farmers have lacked resources for so long that I can only imagine most fruit and vegetable exports will take longer than most want.

“Politics aside, I for one, am looking forward to do business in a country where I will be able to relate so well to the language, culture, food and, of course, the people,” he added.

Jim DiMenna, president of Red Sun Farms a hydroponic vegetable grower and distributor with greenhouses in Canada, Mexico and Dublin, VA, said that true to his and his company’s nature, he looks at all opportunities when it comes to business, adding that as a Canadian, he has always has the freedom to look at Cuba with a keen business eye because the U.S. embargo did not involve Canada.

“Although Canada has always had the opportunity to do business with Cuba, transportation has been a key problem in the past,” DiMenna said. “But if that issue goes away and we can move a ship 90 miles across the Atlantic Ocean, things may change.

“But we also have to do our due diligence,” he added. “Does Cuba have the proper elevation for a highly technical greenhouse facility? Does it have the altitude that will affect crops in any way? We have to assess and analyze all aspects of doing business there. It’s not something we’ll do overnight.”

DiMenna stressed that Red Sun is a progressive company that is cautiously optimistic.

“We continually look for options for developing business,” he added. “But our stringent rules and regulations would apply to doing business with Cuba the same as they do with our business partners in Canada, the U.S. and Mexico. Everything that we do we do to a stringent stet of standards.

“I am glad, however, that after more than 50 years everyone in North American will be building a relationship with Cuba and its people,” he added.

Charlie Eagle, vice president of business development for Southern Specialties, added, “The thought of having a potential new client and supplier-base located only hours from our facility is quite exciting. But we need to keep in mind we are in very early stages of opening any real relationships with Cuba. The average yearly income for the 11 million Cubans of $ 6,000 does not make for a strong customer base for every product. Large international companies like Coca-Cola will make initial investments. The Cuban government has made tourism, from countries other than the U.S., its biggest profit center. Opening Cuba to American tourism would be huge and we could expect a large influx of money into the Communist government. It will be interesting to watch this relationship unfold. Perhaps, ultimately, Southern Specialties may play a part in Cuba by expanding its core competencies of growing, importing and processing vegetables grown in Latin America, the U.S., Mexico and Canada.”

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