Louisiana Congressman Plans Ag Trade Trip to Cuba

By: , ghilburn@gannett.com

Fifth District U.S. Rep. Ralph Abraham wants Louisiana to be first in line as a trading partner for Cuba when normalization between the forbidden island and the United States is complete.

“We want to be first in the gate,” said Abraham, R-Alto, who is traveling to Cuba on an agricultural trade mission April 6 with U.S. Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, Arkansas, and producers from both states..

Abraham’s trip will come on the heels of President Barack’s historic visit to the island, where Cubans crave Louisiana rice but have been denied the staple from here for decades because of the embargo.

“Basically, this is a huge market in our own back yard,” said northeastern Louisiana’s Meryl Kennedy Farr, whose family is one of the largest rice producers in the state and among those traveling with Abraham. “Trade normalization with Cuba has been one of the top goals for the rice industry for many years.”

Acadiana rice farmer Richard Fontenot believes Cuba could buy as much as half of Louisiana’s rice crop when the embargo is eventually lifted.

“They love the quality of Louisiana rice,” said Fontenot, who isn’t traveling to Cuba on this trip but hopes to in the future. “It would be a tremendous boost for us.

“We can deliver the rice they want and we can do it cheaper than other countries like Thailand because of the logistics. We have a tremendous freight advantage.”

“Louisiana is poised to be the leader with Cuba being just 36 hours away from our port in New Orleans,” Abraham said.

Scott Franklin, whose family grows and stores rice in northeastern Louisiana, called Abraham’s journey “the most important trade mission of my lifetime.”

“It would be a home run for the rice industry,” Franklin said. “It would give us a tremendous market that we desperately need.”

Abraham said he wants to “really get into the nuts and bolts of shipping and distribution” with Cuban officials.

“It’s not as glamorous as the president’s trip, but we want to go to the port, explore the logistics and certainly talk with people who would be receiving the goods,” the congressman said. “It’s a chance to establish relationships. There’s going to be a lot of competition, so we want to leverage our advantages early.”

Farr agreed, saying she wants “to meet the players and get a better understanding of their needs and concerns. It’s not going to happen tomorrow, but we need to be part of the conversations now to lay the groundwork for the future,” she said.

And while the Louisiana rice industry would be the biggest initial beneficiary, Abraham said Cubans are ultimately interested in all of the state’s commodities and goods.

“They want everything we make and everything we grow,” Abraham said. “They’ve been cut off from us for decades.”

Follow Greg Hilburn on Twitter @GregHilburn1

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