First load of U.S. wheat off to Cuba

In a momentous occasion for the American wheat farmer, the first commercial shipload of U.S. wheat in four decades was scheduled to leave for Cuba Jan. 9.

The shipment is the first “installment” of 70,000 metric tons of hard red-winter wheat purchased by Cuban officials in the wake of Hurricane Michelle.

This afternoon there was a brief “celebration” at the port that denoted the feelings of people associated with American agriculture who have worked over the last several years to open trade with Cuba.

Wheat industry representatives from Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma attended the event. The contingent was led by Henry Jo Von Tungeln, a wheat grower from Oklahoma, who presides over two of the industry’s trade groups: U.S. Wheat Associates and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee.

Von Tungeln and others from USW went to Havana 14 months ago as part of a continuing effort to assess Cuba’s wheat needs and prepare the way for eventual commercial sales.

“I’ve been growing wheat since 1949,” Von Tungeln said. “I do it because I love to work on the land, but also because I like that fact that my wheat is being turned into the bread that provides sustenance for so many people around the world. It’s past time that U.S. wheat should be made into the bread for the children of Cuba.”

Cuba purchased the wheat and other commodities in December, in the wake of tremendous devastation caused by Hurricane Michelle, in order to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of the Cuban people.

“It is fantastic that we are able to help when it counts the most,” said Von Tungeln. “And while we are very glad about the sale, we are sorry that it had to come as a result of such a terrible natural disaster.

“This is not the first time that young Cubans will be eating bread made with U.S. wheat,” Von Tungeln added. “But the sale represents another step forward.”

The commercial sales follow two small humanitarian donations made by U.S. wheat groups in 1998, when they privately donated wheat that was ground into flour and provided to CARITAS, the Catholic relief organization, for bread distribution to needy Cuban families.

The president of the National Association of Wheat Growers applauded the commitment of farmers to opening the Cuban market.

“A great deal of hard work from many dedicated people contributed to this shipment,” said Dusty Tallman, a wheat grower from Colorado. “U.S. wheat producers are extremely proud to play their part in this historic event.”

Wheat industry officials warn that, notwithstanding the recent purchases, current U.S. government rules and regulations on Cuban trade are extremely restrictive, and put a severe damper on future prospects unless those restrictions are eliminated.

For the day, however, Von Tungeln was delighted at the recent evolution of trade relations with Cuba.

“This shipment is proof that trade can resume,” he said.

The U.S. is the world’s largest exporter of wheat. U.S. Wheat Associates, the industry’s export market development organization, works in more than 100 countries on behalf of wheat growers from 18 states.

The Kansas Wheat Commission is the largest state contributor to U.S. Wheat Associates. -Kansas Wheat Commission

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