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Published: Friday, 2/22/2002

Farmers in Illinois seeking to cultivate markets in Cuba


AUBURN, Ill. - Garry Niemeyer has his eye on a new market for the corn and soybeans he grows on his Illinois farm - a hungry country not much farther away than a barge ride down the Mississippi River.

For 40 years, Cuba has seemed a world away to farmers like Mr. Niemeyer and other American businessmen because of the U.S. trade embargo against the communist country 90 miles off Florida.

"When we have a market that's this close, it's a shame not to utilize it to the fullest extent," he said.

U.S. farmers, however, are unlikely to see corn and soybean prices go up because of Cuba's purchases, said Andy Swerlein, grain manager at Blanchard Valley Farmers Co-Op, Inc., which operates eight grain elevators in Hancock County. Cuba is not big enough to have that much of an effect, he explained.

Much of the corn grown locally is not likely to be shipped to Cuba, instead heading to the Southeast to feed poultry and hogs, and soybeans and wheat are often processed in the Midwest, he said.

Cuba's purchases from the United States are likely to replace purchases it has made in the past from other countries such as Canada rather than creating a vast increase in international demand, said Phil Abbott, an agricultural economist at Purdue University.

Politicians from farm states, led in part by Illinois Republican Gov. George Ryan and his two icebreaking trips to Cuba, are putting increasing pressure on the Bush administration to ease the sanctions. And Fidel Castro has signaled a willingness to do business.

Trade sanctions were instituted in the 1960s and tightened in 1992. They were softened in 2000, when a law was passed allowing direct sales of food to Cuba for cash.

Illinois economic development officials believe free trade could bring the United States up to $1 billion in agricultural business with Cuba, including the sale of food and equipment.

Mr. Niemeyer concedes nothing will happen without politicians.

"Farmers didn't put the embargoes on, politicians did."

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