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U.S. produce exporters show off their fruits and veggies
CubaNews / October 2002

By Larry Luxner

HAVANA -- Washington pears, New York apples and Florida onions vied for attention along with thousands of other tasty items at last month’s U.S. Food & Agribusiness Exhibition — in a gamble by U.S. exporters that Cubans will pay hard-earned dollars for American fresh fruits and vegetables.

Fidel Castro himself attended the Sept. 26-30 expo on three separate days, tasting samples of everything from raisins to soyburgers. The 76-year-old revolutionary, dressed in a business suit rather than his usual army fatigues, stop to chat with executives from many of the 288 U.S. companies and trade organizations participating in the show.

Kevin D. Moffitt, president and CEO of Pear Bureau Northwest in Milwaukie, Ore., spoke with Castro briefly as the Cuban leader strolled past his booth.

“He asked if our Bartlett pear variety was the same as the Williams pear from France. I told him it was similar,” Moffitt said. “He was trying to see as many people as he could, and we were in the right place at the right time.”

Moffitt says 38% of his pear crop is exported, currently to 38 countries led by Mexico, Canada, Sweden and Venezuela. He was in Cuba not only to attend the food expo but to introduce the first shipment of U.S. pears to the Caribbean island in 42 years.

“In terms of what to expect, Cuba has 38,000 hotel rooms and 700 [hard-currency] restaurants. We believe our first market will be the tourist trade,” he told CubaNews.

“Initially, this market could be worth a few hundred thousand dollars for us, maybe $500,000 in three to five years. But a lot could change.”

During the show, import agency Alimport made a commitment to purchase five containerloads of fresh pears from Washington state. The $70,000 deal was brokered by Sun International of Miami.

Down the aisle from Moffitt was Michael R. Mauricio, CEO of Tampa-based Florida Produce of Hillsborough County Inc.

Mauricio decorated his booth with brightly colored balloons to call attention to his already colorful displays of apples, pears, kiwis, onions and cloves of garlic.

Earlier this year, Mauricio shipped 850 50-pound bags of jumbo yellow onions in three containers worth a total of around $25,000.

“The onion market here could be immense,” said Mauricio, who describes himself as an American of Cuban ancestry.

“There are 11 million people in Cuba. Their basic ingredients for cooking are onions, garlic and green peppers. Hopefully, we can do several containers of onions a month. Grapes, apples and pears could also be worthwhile. But the dust has got to settle first. They’re feeling their way around just like we are.”

James Allen, president of the New York Apple Association in Fishers, N.Y., flew down to Havana with three colleagues. Together, they manned a booth dominated by a big poster with a map of the United States and Cuba, emblazoned with the slogan, “Mas cerca. Mas rápido. Mejor. Manzanas del Estado de Nueva York” (Closer, quicker, better. Apples from New York state).

“Our apples can get to Cuba in four or five days,” he said. “We have a varietal mix, and we know that in the past, Cubans have purchased Macintosh apples from Canada. We are a leading producer of Macintosh apples. They also find the Empire apple very appealing, and they like Red Delicious.”

While New York hasn’t exported apples to Cuba yet, Washington has delivered 17 tons of apples to the Caribbean island since July.

“In dollar terms, it’s worth only $100,000, but it’s really symbolic more than anything,” said Rebecca J. Baerveldt, international marketing manager at the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee, Wash.

Since the U.S. trade embargo went into effect in 1960, she said, Cuba has imported apples from Chile and Canada, but they don’t compare in quality to U.S. apples. “They tend to be smaller and rounder, and they don’t have the elongation of the Red Delicious that we have,” she said.

Baerveldt conceded that apples are still somewhat of a luxury in Cuba, where the average citizen earns the equivalent of $20 a month and has little or no access to dollars.

“There is difficulty in transacting business with Cuba. All sales have to be in cash, so that limits the distribution of our products only to markets where they’ll get paid in dollars, such as hotels, restaurants and hard-currency supermarkets,” she said. “We’d be fortunate to sell $500,000 this year [to the Cubans]. That would be wonderful.”

The apples are trucked from Washington state to Gulfport, Miss., and then loaded onto Crowley containerships bound for Havana. Six shipments of apples have been sent so far.

Asked about Castro’s visit to her booth, she said: “We just talked about Washington apples, but I was really hoping he’d eat one.”

Allan L. Henderson, owner of C.L. Henderson Produce Company in Hendersonville, N.C., also met Cuba’s maximum leader.

“This is our first endeavor into the export business, and we’re excited,” said Henderson, whose produce company has $16 million in revenues.

Henderson said he spent nearly a year and a half on paperwork, visas and export licenses to make this trip to Cuba possible, hoping to sell at least one containerload of North Carolina apples, peppers and yellow squash to the Cuban government.

Apparently, Henderson’s efforts paid off — especially after he and sales rep Don Ward III had a three-hour dinner with Castro the night before the trade show opened.

“We were told we were going to meet Pedro Alvarez, president of Alimport,” said Henderson. “So we got into a bus, and the driver didn’t know where he was going. We were then taken to a secure site with guards and guns. Fidel came in, shook everybody’s hands and took a liking to Don and I. They moved us right in front of him so we could talk to him.”

Henderson walked away with a $100,000 contract to sell nine containerloads of Rome apples to Alimport.

The North Carolina farmer says he’s also interested in selling Cuba overwrap packages each containing two green bell peppers, one red and one yellow Holland peppers. In the U.S., such a presentation retails for $4.00; in Cuba, it would probably sell for $5.25.

Likewise, the tropical Caribbean island could also become an important market for American potatoes, though only a limited quantity would be sold as fresh.

Industry officials say the majority of Cuba-bound potatoes would be processed into French fries or dehydrated products.

“They’re probably looking for seed potato and processed product,” explained Shannen Bornsen, marketing director at the Washing-ton State Potato Commission. “From what I understand, Cubans have a very large potato production, and they basically consume all of what they produce here.”

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