During public remarks Monday in Havana, Cuba, President Barack Obama highlighted the importance agriculture will play in convincing Congress to finally end the five-decades-long trade embargo with the island.
"The embargo's going to end," the president said. He added, "If we build on the work we are doing in agriculture and you start seeing more U.S. farmers interacting with Cuban farmers, and there's more imports and exports, the possibility of ending the embargo increases."
USDA Radio News had the recording on those comments. http://audioarchives.oc.usda.gov/…
The president also told business people in Havana that while the U.S. has the most productive agriculture in the world, the United States also is seeing more interest in organic farming, which translates into "less inputs, less chemicals, fewer mono-crops, and more vegetables and fruits that can go directly to the table. And this is part of the First Lady's emphasis on healthier eating."
Those comments came during an event with Cuban business people on Monday afternoon. He noted the island is now welcoming foreign investment and Cubans can now buy and sell property. Farmers can also now start cooperatives.
The president also spotlighted an Alabama tractor company that in February became the first U.S. business to get approval from the Department of Commerce begin a manufacturing operation on the island.
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"Cleber will be the first U.S. company to build a factory here in more than 50 years -- they’re going to build tractors for Cuban farmers," Obama told the crowd in Havana.
Cleber noted in a news release when the plant was approved that the company chose to start manufacturing tractors on the island because more than 70% of the land had been returned to the private sector for agriculture.
Abelardo Alvarez Silva, president of the Cooperative of Credits and Services, an association of small farmers, told Obama that his cooperative has a group of farmers working an area of 638 hectares (1,576 acres), of which 500 hectares (1,236 acres) are arable land growing potatoes, plantains, sweet potatoes, carrots, tomatoes and beets as well as guava and papaya.
While the farm is irrigated, Silva said the operation is hindered by the lack of technology and poor machinery.
Obama asked Silva about the farm's market and products, and the main needs of the cooperative at this point.
Silva said the farm's machinery is old and out of spare parts. The irrigation system is old and causes soil erosion. Newer equipment and parts would make the farm more efficient, use less water and better protect the soil as well.
"What is our message? To give us an opportunity to meet two objectives. One, to produce food for the people more efficiently," Silva said. "And second, in the immediate future, to contribute to the world. And we continue with our land growing it and harvesting it."
Obama noted Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack was on the trip and meeting with Cuban government officials about how cooperation between U.S. farmers and Cuban farmers could accelerate.
"We have programs all around the world that are designed to advance technologies, specifically for small farmers, not just for big farmers -- because the truth of the matter is, the U.S. agricultural industry, which is the largest in the world, oftentimes may have systems that are not perfectly adapted to smaller-scale cooperative farming," the president said. "On the other hand, what you're seeing in terms of agriculture in the United States is a greater and greater interest in what's called organic farming -- less inputs, less chemicals, fewer mono-crops, and more vegetables and fruits that can go directly to the table. And this is part of the First Lady's emphasis on healthier eating."
The close proximity to the U.S. also means Cuban farmers can find a U.S. market for their goods as well. "The fact that Cuba is so close to the United States means that if you develop fruits and vegetables here, the ability to ship them and immediately get to markets where they can be purchased would be something that could make a big difference in terms of farm incomes here in Cuba," the president said.
"So this is an area where, again, it's not going to happen overnight, but our hope is that as relationships between the two countries advance and develop, hopefully we'll be getting you some new equipment sometime in the future."
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