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NC agriculture officials explore trade with Cuba

Posted September 29, 2015 6:51 p.m. EDT

— As Cuban leader Raul Castro visits America and discusses policy with President Barack Obama, agricultural leaders from North Carolina are on the ground in Cuba seeking trade opportunities with the island nation.

A 28-member trade delegation arrived in Havana on Sunday to meet with their Cuban counterparts, tour tobacco farms and learn more about the country's agriculture industry.

"It’s completely different from the United States," said Keith Beavers, a Duplin County farmer.

It has taken more than half a century for both countries to have a conversation about their differences and restore diplomatic relations.

"When you get right down to it, the Cuban people are wonderful, the American people are wonderful. It’s the politicians that get in the way," Beavers said.

The trade delegation understands there is opportunity in Cuba. U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba during the mid-1950s would amount to roughly $600 million a year at current prices, and economists predict even more trade could be done now.

North Carolina already exports poultry and apples to Cuba, but officials want to open the market to more agricultural goods.

Larry Wooten, president of the North Carolina Farm Bureau, notes that tourism is on the rise in Cuba since the U.S. began normalizing relations.

"Two things that tourism needs: good food and good accommodations," Wooten said. "You talk about good food, that’s where North Carolina comes in."

Delegation members said they know expanding exports to Cuba will take more than tours and meetings, but they said they hope their visit is the first step toward making needed connections and exchanging knowledge.