New market for Georgia products

ATLANTA — State lawmakers are evaluating what improved relations with Cuba could mean for one of Georgia’s top exports — poultry.

Already, the communist country 550 miles south of Georgia is gobbling up the state’s poultry — in spite of a longstanding U.S. embargo on exports to Cuba that exempts food.

In fact, Georgia exports had their strongest year yet with Cuba just last year, according to Mary Waters, deputy commissioner of international trade with the state’s Department of Economic Development.

Georgia growers sold nearly $65 million worth of two products to Cuba last year — soybean oil cake, which was the bulk of the exports, and poultry.

Trade with Cuba has been volatile over the years, Waters added.

In 2014, Cuba bought about $8 million in poultry products from Georgia, nearly 40 percent less than the previous year.

A slight increase is expected for this year, Waters said.

But Cuba’s willingness to do business with Georgia farmers, despite the embargo and the storied tensions between the two countries, has some feeling optimistic about the possibilities.

“They can’t raise enough yard birds — enough chickens — to feed their own people,” said Charles Shapiro, president of the World Affairs Council of Atlanta, during a legislative committee hearing Tuesday.

“Bam, that’s an opportunity,” he added.

It’s an opportunity that Georgia farmers welcome.

Mike Giles, president of the Georgia Poultry Federation, said in an interview that producers have long desired a more normal trading relationship with the island.

“We do see Cuba as one of those markets with potential to grow in the years to come,” he said.

There’s been rampant speculation about what renewed relations with Cuba could mean economically for the United States ever since President Barack Obama re-established ties with the country in December.

There’s only one buyer in Cuba — the government. An entity called Alimport handles the island’s imports, and for now, it only buys agricultural products from the United States.

A state Senate study committee, created in March, is examining what opportunities may exist and what, if anything, lawmakers can do to stabilize — or even grow — exports to Cuba.

If nothing else, talks under the Gold Dome will help state leaders communicate more effectively with their counterparts in Washington, who must decide whether to lift the embargo, said Sen. John Wilkinson, R-Toccoa, a member of the study committee and chairman of the Senate’s Agriculture and Consumer Affairs Committee.

Other states, including Arkansas and Illinois, are having similar discussions about how their agricultural industries may benefit from improved relations with Cuba.

But some remain skeptical that there is any real economic benefit to be had.

“Can we actually do anything to promote increased trade with them without having a Cuban version of the Marshall Plan?” asked state Sen. Mike Dugan, R-Carrollton, referring to the billions that the United States contributed to rebuilding Europe following World War II.

Sen. David Lucas, D-Macon, who is chairing the study committee, said he believes change will come quickly.

Georgia, he said, must be ready or risk missing out.

“I really see something happening in the next year and a half, because corporate America is talking about it and corporate America is going to make it happen,” Lucas said.

Others see the focus on potential economic gains as premature.

Jorge Fernandez, who is vice president of global commerce for the Metro Atlanta Chamber, said he views what is materializing in Cuba as more of a “political opening” that makes way for relationship-building.

“The economic opening cannot happen in full earnest until the embargo gets lifted,” he said.

Jill Nolin covers the Statehouse for CNHI’s newspapers and websites. Reach her at jnolin@cnhi.com.

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