POLK CITY, Iowa (DTN) -- After visiting a seed research facility and a central Iowa farm, Cuban Ag Minister Gustavo Rodriguez Rollero said Friday that one of the biggest priorities for modernizing crop production in his country is finding ways to improve seed technology for farmers.
"Farmers feel one of the biggest things we need to do to improve agriculture is improve our seeds," Rodriguez said through a translator.
Rodriguez noted a memorandum signed between USDA and the Cuban government includes several areas of cooperation. High on that list is helping improve seed technology, he said.
"This is the basis for the development of agriculture," Rodriguez said. "There will never be a farmer who can improve his production if he doesn't improve his seeds."
Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack used the visit to stress the opportunities for farmers in both countries if Congress would pass legislation to lift the trade embargo that dates back to 1962. Vilsack said he's optimistic Congress will eventually act, though he added he doesn't know how long it could take for lawmakers to come around. The secretary quoted Abraham Lincoln in saying the best way to get rid of an enemy is to make them into a friend. He compared Rodriguez' Iowa visit to the 1959 visit by then-Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev.
"There is so much in common between us in agriculture," Vilsack said. "We don't need artificial barriers that make it harder for us to have this relationship."
Vilsack demurred when asked by a reporter how the presidential election could affect the developing relationship between the U.S. and Cuba. Vilsack said he wasn't allowed to talk about election politics during official events, but stressed that improved relations are a priority for President Barack Obama.
Beyond removing trade barriers, the Obama administration is hoping the final 2017 appropriations for USDA from Congress will include funding for a permanent USDA presence in Cuba. Vilsack added that one of the latest actions he's taken has been to allow commodity groups to use checkoff dollars to promote U.S. ag products on the island. Cuba is allowed to import ag products, but credit issues still restrict how buyers on the island pay for those ag commodities.
Aaron Lehman, a fifth-generation farmer from near Polk City, Iowa, hosted the delegation Friday and explained to Rodriguez some of the differences between conventional and organic crop production. Lehman has about 350 acres of conventional crops and 200 acres of organic production. He's been slowly converting acreage on the farm to organic production over the past decade. But Lehman only makes that switch on about 40 more acres per year to avoid a hit on his finances during the three-year transitional time it takes to move from conventional production to getting organic certification on acreage. Lehman told Rodriguez the premiums for organic crops are significant, but that transitional time can be costly.
"We probably lose a little money in the transition period in the hopes we can make more after we're certified," Lehman explained. "We are transitioning one field at a time because it's hard work. I know some farmers who transitioned the whole farm at one time and it caused a lot of headaches."
Given that Cuba has been relatively isolated when it comes to crop technology, Vilsack has been touting the idea that much of Cuba's exportable food, mainly fruits and vegetables, would likely qualify as organic. Vilsack reiterated that point to Rodriguez on Friday, adding that organic consumption is increasing about 15% a year nationally.
Most of Lehman's organic production -- corn, soybeans, oats and hay -- is used for feed for animals that would be certified as organic.
"So it isn't necessarily going to compete with him (Lehman), and it will allow organic to grow here," Vilsack said.
While Lehman was pointing to his 20-year-old John Deere tractor and explaining that it doesn't have all the bells and whistles of new tractors, Rodriguez noted many of his farmers would be in awe of owning such a machine. The ag minister touched on this issue Thursday during a meeting in Washington, D.C., in which he said his farmers would like to buy modern U.S. tractors but that requires Congress to change the laws to allow better credit conditions for exports to Cuba.
Rodriguez and the Cuban delegation started Friday at DuPont Pioneer's research facility in Johnston, Iowa, where they toured a greenhouse and learned some history about the company as well as some of the changes in seed technology that have driven yield improvement over time in crops such as corn.
Rodriguez also asked DuPont Pioneer President Paul Schickler if it is a struggle to change the mindset of farmers when it comes to trying new products. Schickler said it was important for companies to build a system that demonstrates the value of new products and builds trust with farmers.
After hearing about conservation programs and practices on Lehman's farm, Rodriguez talked about a conservation program implemented in Cuba over the past decade to certify the quality of soils and improve water conservation. The project includes operations that function much like local demonstration farms.
"We transfer all of the technology to those sites and it's an integrated approach," Rodriguez said. "We also provide farmers with financial support to deal with the conservation costs."
Rodriguez also noted Cuba has faced issues over the past decade with water quality, particularly involving livestock production. Vilsack chimed in, "We are having a healthy debate in this state over water quality."
Lehman acknowledged he doesn't know much about agriculture in Cuba, but he said he quickly realized from the ag minister's comments that farmers there deal with water-quality challenges, soil erosion and sustainability problems.
"The interesting thing, listening to their ag minister talking, was how similar the issues are between here and there for their farmers," Lehman said.
Chris Clayton can be reached at Chris.Clayton@dtn.com
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