PNW fruit to Cuba will take time

Fidel Castro (left) is seen inspecting pears at a trade show in Cuba in 2002 while Kevin Moffitt (far right), president of The Pear Bureau Northwest, looks on.

YAKIMA, Wash. — With the United States moving to normalize relations, Cuba is a potential market for Washington tree fruit but probably not for some time and not in large volumes.

Cuba only has 11 million people and more than five decades of communist control has resulted in a poor economy and very little middle class, said Chris Schlect, president of the Northwest Horticultural Council in Yakima.

“Down the road when their economy takes off and they get more of a middle class, it should be a good market,” Schlect said.

A turn to democracy or at least some sort of mixed communist-capitalist system, like China or Vietnam, and an increase in tourism would help that happen, he said.

“Tourism is what they have to sell and builds their economy. I envision a huge surge in tourism, of people going who haven’t been there in decades and a build up of resorts,” he said.

Steve Appel, a wheat farmer and president of the Washington Farm Bureau, was part of a Clinton administration trade mission to Cuba in 1999 that preceded a change in law in 2000 that allowed some agricultural exports to Cuba.

Along with other commodities, it resulted in Pacific Northwest apples and pears going to Cuba for a few years.

Northern Fruit Co. Inc., East Wenatchee, sold small amounts of apples to Cuba in 2002 and 2003. The company’s operations manager, Doug Pauly, said he would like to sell there again. If Cuba can develop its economy, it could be a solid market like other Latin American countries of about 200,000 boxes of apples annually, he said.

That would be about $4 million at current prices of about $20 per box. The Dominican Republic leads the region at about 500,000 boxes, roughly $10 million.

“Every new market opportunity is a good market opportunity,” said Rebecca Lyons, export marketing manager of the Washington Apple Commission in Wenatchee. She said she knows of no Washington apple company shipping apples to Cuba since Northern Fruit did. Sales were complicated by Cuba having to pay in dollars through a third party, she said.

Lyons, Schlect and Kevin Moffitt, president of The Pear Bureau Northwest in Portland, all attended trade shows in Cuba in 2002.

The Northwest sold 2,154, 44-pound boxes of pears to Cuba in 2002 and doubled that by 2005, Moffitt said. The U.S. tightened regulations on credit and shipments dropped back to about 2,000 boxes for several years before ending in 2012, he said.

Cuba is allowing some small businesses to open and people to sell produce outside of official stores, Moffitt said. It is building some wealth, although small.

“As people are lifted out of poverty, more will be able to afford pears and apples,” he said. “The retail segment will need to be developed a lot before large volumes can go there.”

It will probably be seven to 10 years before enough middle class emerges in Cuba for it to become a target for Northwest cherries, said B.J. Thurlby, president of Northwest Cherry Growers in Yakima.

A good comparison is Vietnam, he said, which is merging communism and capitalism, developing “a very nice little middle class market for cherries” this year at 35,000 boxes.

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