CubaNews / January 2011
By Larry Luxner
Cuba’s cattle industry could have a really bright future — if only the Castro government privatizes state lands to attract foreign investors, and Washington restores diplomatic relations with Havana so that U.S. tourists could flock to Cuba by the millions.
So says John Parke Wright IV, a Florida rancher from Naples who’s been to Cuba numerous times and probably knows more about the island’s livestock industry than any cattleman in America.
Days after returning from a cattle fair in Bayamó — capital of the eastern province of Granma — Wright spoke to CubaNews with passion about an industry that’s been a part of his family for generations.
“Beef cattle production is up. The head count of beef cattle is increasing, especially with the cattle of Flora y Fauna SA, MININT (Ministry of Interior) and of course the Ministry of Agriculture,” he said.
“The quality of the herds I visited has increased dramatically in the last four years, with much healthier weights and appearance than before. It took me 11 hours to drive from Bayamo to Havana, and I noticed very healthy herds in Camagüey and Jagüey Grande.”
Wright, 60, is a lifelong Floridian, a devout Catholic and the owner of Naples-based consulting and trading firm J.P. Wright & Co. Profiled six years ago by this newsletter (see CubaNews, July 2004, page 8), Wright and his family have been shipping cattle to Cuba since the 1840s.
Lykes Brothers, a shipping firm started by his great-great-grandfather, owned a 15,000-acre ranch near Bayamo which was expropriated shortly after the 1959 revolution.
“Between 1929 and 1956, my family shipped 359 Brahma bulls from the Hudgins ranch in Hungerford, Tex., to Cuba,” Wright said proudly. “My ancestors were responsible for introducing the Zebu brand into Cuba. I’m now following in the same footsteps.”
Despite a $3.6 million claim for his family’s confiscated land, Wright doesn’t appear to hold any grudges. On the contrary, he says he’d like to help Cuba as much as possible.
“Governments don’t know how to run ranches. We wouldn’t have any meat in McDonald’s if the government was running ranches in our own country,” said Wright, who counts Fidel’s older brother Ramón among his closest buddies.
“I’m hopeful that privatization will come, and that Cuba will reach out to foreign investment, so that people like myself can invest in cattle-ranching again in Cuba, and be back in the saddle.”
Ralph Kaehler of St. Charles, Minn., was the first U.S. cattleman to sell livestock to Cuba after the embargo was relaxed in 2000 to allow food and medical sales to the island.
In 2002, Kaehler and his two young sons became local celebrities after news photos were published around the world as they showed Fidel Castro one of their bulls, named Minnesota Red, during a Havana trade show.
In subsequent years, Wright managed to sell 400 to 500 Brangus heifers, Brafords, Black Angus and Beef Masters to the island’s food purchasing agency, Alimport.
In the last two years, Alimport has also bought 3,000 to 4,000 head of cattle from Canada, but there have been no purchases from the United States since 2004.
However, he said, “I have a contract in the works for frozen Brahma and Brangus bull semen. I’m involved in an artificial insemination program to increase beef production.”
So far, Wright says he’s shipped 2,500 “straws” of frozen bull semen to Cuba worth a total of $100,000, with another 2,500 straws to be delivered shortly.
“We’ve also been giving workshops for the last seven years in Cuba on breeding and feed technology at Cuba’s Institute for Agricultural Sciences,” he told CubaNews.
“There’s a lot going on behind the scenes. I see the Cuban government making a conscientious effort to raise standards of living by reducing restrictions,” Wright said.
“Secondly, the development of agriculture and tourism fits into their long-term plan, but the opening of relations with the United States is vital to economic activity. So I’m looking to President Obama to normalize relations with Cuba.”