Cuban flour millers exchange information with Kansas wheat farmers

by Marsha Boswell, Kansas Wheat

Kansas Wheat is hosting an informational exchange with a group of Cuban flour mill professionals this week. This first-of-its-kind event allows these Cuban millers to experience Kansas farming and its wheat industry first hand. The millers represent two of the six flour mills in Cuba. Technical Specialist Marcelo Mitre from the USW Mexico City office is traveling with the team.

The trip included a visit to Kansas Wheat Commissioner Jay Armstrong’s farm, opportunities to discuss crop quality in the state with USDA and Kansas Wheat representatives, as well as tours of the Kansas Wheat Innovation Center, the IGP Institute, the Hal Ross Flour Mill and the Kansas Grain Inspection Service.

Cuba imports all its wheat needs, but is not currently importing any wheat from the United States because of challenges related to the U.S. embargo. Total wheat imports from all origins in marketing year 20155/16 are estimated at 800,000 metric tons (29.4 million bushels).

“With current decade-low commodity prices and pressures on the U.S. ag economy, we need to be fostering trade partners and relationships, not prohibiting them,” said Jay Armstrong, past chairman of the Kansas Wheat Commission and a USW director. “Despite many difficulties associated with the U.S. trading with Cuba, it is apparent that we have a major transportation and logistical advantage in shipping, given Cuba’s proximity to the United States. A level playing field with Canada and Europe is critical for U.S. wheat farmers to fully realize their export potential to Cuba. Kansas wheat farmers support ending the embargo entirely.”

The week’s events kicked off Sept. 19, when Kansas Wheat joined Engage Cuba and other farm groups in launching the Engage Cuba Kansas State Council.

“Kansas wheat farmers are excited to be here today, to be founding members of the Engage Cuba Kansas State Council. By being members of this group, we can play an important role to influence significant decisions that have to be made before we can enjoy Cuba as a trading partner,” said Armstrong.

Kansas Wheat has been working for decades to open up the Cuban wheat market, including meetings with Cuban leaders and trade missions to the island nation.

In January 2002, the first shipment of hard red winter wheat in more than forty years left the Port of Galveston, Texas, and began a beneficial trade partnership. That first shipment contained wheat from Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma, and was the beginning of a total first shipment of 2.6 million bushels, in the wake of Hurricane Michelle.

That trade partnership continued until 2010. One of the key reasons that wheat purchases from the U.S. have not continued is because under U.S. law Cuba must pay for all U.S. goods with cash. Because other competitor countries are able to offer credit to Cuba, U.S. wheat is effectively shut out of the market.

During those years of trade, Cuba was a dedicated buyer of U.S. wheat, purchasing up to 70 percent of its wheat imports from the United States.

As that first shipment left the dock at Galveston in 2002, an expert flour miller funded by the Kansas Wheat Commission was on his way to demonstrate hard red winter wheat milling techniques. Elie Posner, a USW milling consultant, provided the technical assistance.

Raisner Ramos Vanega, Director of Balance and Delivery from Grupo Empresarial de la Industria Alimentaria (GEIA) and representatives from Empresa Mixta Industrial Molinera S.A. (IMSA) flour mill, a joint venture operation with a Mexican company and a Cuban holding company, spoke about their desire to purchase U.S. hard red winter wheat.

“We have always wanted to buy wheat from the U.S., and unfortunately politics have not allowed us to be able to purchase that wheat. However, it has always been our desire and our intent to buy wheat from the U.S., but the possibility to do so has been outside our grasp,” said Amyris Herrera García, Quality Specialist from IMSA mill.

“Hard red winter wheat is a good wheat; transportation costs are a lot lower; and we’ve had good yields in processing that wheat,” said José Suarez Linares, Quality Department Supervisor from IMSA, which produces flour, semolina and bran. Whole wheat products are not popular in Cuba, so most of the flour is used to make white pan bread and rolls. The bran is removed from the kernel and used as animal feed.

“We hope to continue strengthening these relationships and awareness of our purchasing system, so that when the embargo is fully lifted, these friends will have the information they need to successfully incorporate U.S. and Kansas wheat into their milling operations,” said Armstrong.