- Associated Press - Tuesday, March 3, 2015

ST. PAUL, Minn. (AP) - Seeking to fan agriculture exports to Cuba, a Minnesota House panel took initial steps Tuesday to spend state money on promoting the shipment of goods to the island nation amid improving relations with the United States.

The bipartisan bill that the House Agriculture Finance Committee kept in the budget mix would designate $100,000 to promote marketing exports to Cuba. Its sponsor, Democratic Rep. Jack Considine of Mankato, said he envisions half of the appropriation being used to defray costs of setting up a high-level trip to develop contacts on the ground. Then-Gov. Jesse Ventura led a delegation there in 2002.

Considine said improving U.S. relations with Cuba make it an ideal time for Minnesota producers to explore opportunities.

“I would like to see us get down there first and expand the markets,” Considine said.

In December, U.S. officials announced steps to begin normalizing relations with the communist island nation after decades of hostility. It triggered high expectations that an eased trade embargo was not far off. But diplomatic talks between the two governments have moved at a measured pace.

There are humanitarian exemptions to the embargo for some agricultural and medical products. Minnesota producers have shipped a modest amount of goods to Cuba in recent years.

According to the Department of Employment and Economic Development, Cuba ranked 170th on the state’s list of export markets in 2014, with a mere $166,700 shipment of medical goods there. Exports neared $52 million because of the high value of corn exports in 2008 but have tapered off more recently.

The agency helps scope out sites for potential trade missions, with the destinations selected by the governor. Department spokeswoman Madeline Koch said there were no plans for a trip to Cuba at this time. Department of Agriculture spokeswoman Margaret Hart said nothing is in the planning stages for her agency but a mission would be considered if the bill passes.

Dayton spokesman Matt Swenson said Cuba “will certainly be one of the countries considered” for future trade trips the governor leads. He heads to Mexico this summer.

The Cuba measure could wind up in an agricultural budget bill now taking shape in the committee.

Ralph Kaehler, a cattle farmer from St. Charles who was on the Ventura trade mission, testified about Minnesota’s advantage of being able to move farm goods down the Mississippi River and into the Gulf of Mexico. His son, Cliff Kaehler, joined his father on that and other trips to Cuba. He told committee members that Cuba remains a largely untapped market.

“It’s not a question of if Cuba is going to be a big market,” Cliff Kaehler said, “but how are we going to capitalize?”

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