Rep. George Nethercutt, R-Wash., was one of three congressmen who were part of a delegation of farmers and rice industry leaders that toured Cuba and sat down with President Fidel Castro to discuss trade issues. The trip was sponsored by the USA Rice Federation.

While no sales agreements were concluded, Nethercutt and USA Rice Federation Chairman David Van Oss called the tour and meetings productive.

“It hasn’t happened yet, but I am more optimistic than I was two days ago,” said Nethercutt, referring to sales of U.S. rice. “Last year we took steps to lift the sanctions on sales of food and medicine. We are looking to Cuba now to make a bold step.”

Nethercutt co-authored the legislation with Rep. Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., who also was part of the delegation. The third congressman making the trip was Rep. William Delahunt, D-Mass.

“Our objective in Havana was to reopen the Cuban market for American rice farmers,” said Van Oss. “We made a strong case and they were receptive. Now we need to push ahead to secure sales for U.S. rice growers, a critical step for permitting further trade sanctions reform on Capitol Hill.

“It has been 40 years since we had access to the Cuban market. It takes time to rebuild relationships and reopen the market. “

Until 1962, Cuba was the top export market for U.S. rice. Trade sanctions imposed that year have cost American rice farmers an estimated $3 billion. A recent U.S. International Trade Commission report estimates that U.S. rice exports to Cuba could total nearly $60 million annually.

Last year Congress made an historic change in its policy regarding trade with Cuba by passing trade sanction reforms that allow food and medical exports under certain conditions. Since then U.S. commodity groups have worked to re-establish trade with the Caribbean nation.

John King III, an Arkansas rice producer and member of the delegation, said the Cuban market is vital to the American farmer.

“We need as many customers as we can get,” said King. “American agriculture is in a crisis. Re-establishing exports to Cuba would certainly help our situation.”

According to Van Oss, the delegation that traveled to Cuba delivered a strong message that American producers will work hard to overcome existing trade barriers.

“The fact that we had growers, industry leaders, and congressional representatives working together showed the Cubans that we are serious about trade,” said Van Oss. “I appreciate the efforts of the delegation, especially the members of Congress who joined us, and of all those who are working to open Cuba to American rice.”

USA Rice is a federation of U.S. rice producers, millers and allied businesses working together to address common challenges, advocate collective interests, and create opportunities to strengthen the long-term economic viability of the industry. USA Rice members are active in all major rice-producing states: Arkansas, California, Florida, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, and Texas. The U.S. Rice Producers’ Group, Rice Millers’ Association, and the USA Rice Council are charter members of the USA Rice Federation.