BISMARCK, N.D. – North Dakota will ship 100 tons of seed potatoes to Cuba, marking the first time the communist country has bought U.S. seed potatoes in decades.
The deal, announced Monday, calls for the seed potatoes to be sent to the island in time for farmers there to plant this year, North Dakota Agriculture Commissioner Roger Johnson said.
"It's a very small amount — only about $15,000 worth — but it is significant in testing the waters," Johnson said.
The United States established a trade embargo with Cuba in 1962, but Congress passed a law in 2001 allowing cash sales of U.S. agricultural goods and medicine to Cuba.
Johnson said he has traveled to Cuba six times in the last six years to push North Dakota farm products. He said the state has sold about $30 million worth of peas and lentils to Cuba since 2001.
"Every single time I've been to Cuba they've asked about potatoes," Johnson said.
Two Cuban inspectors toured seed potato fields in the state's Red River Valley last week and will return in the autumn when the potatoes are ready to be shipped, Johnson said.
Cuba officials have said the country imports up to 40,000 tons of seed potatoes annually from Canada and Holland, but the country wants to find other sources.
"One flattering aspect of the whole thing is that they're shopping here," said Duane Maatz, president of the Northern Plains Potato Growers Association. "Our reputation for quality seed is very good — and that's been good for North Dakota."
Shipping potato seed from North Dakota is cheaper than shipping it from Europe, he said.
"We have the freight advantage over Europe and better standards of quality for viruses than eastern Canada," Maatz said.
North Dakota has more than 180 potato growers but only about three dozen potato seed producers, Maatz said.
Growers in the state sold potato seed to Cuba through the 1940s, Maatz said.
"We do have some varieties that work well with their traditions and customs," Maatz said. "What we have here is what they want in their food supply."