MICHELE NORRIS, host:
From NPR News, this is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED. I'm Michele Norris.
MELISSA BLOCK, host:
And I'm Melissa Block.
A growing number of Americans are getting together to work to end the U.S. embargo against Cuba. It's been in place for almost 45 years. Some farmers, especially those who grow rice and beans, see Cuba as one of the world's most promising new markets.
Today in the first part of a series, NPR's Adam Davidson visits a North Dakota bean farmer who believes opening trade with Cuba could change his life.
(Soundbite of combine)
ADAM DAVIDSON: At the height of the bean harvest, Allen Juliason is driving his massive combine through more than 400 acres of great northern beans.
Mr. ALLEN JULIASON (Bean Farmer): This is best time of the year. This is the time that you live for.
DAVIDSON: Juliason's farm is in Hope, North Dakota, a town of 300. We're high up in the cab. Below us, the combine picks the beans, shakes them, separates the chaff, and shoots a massive constant waterfall of beans into a large hopper just behind us.
Mr. JULIASON: You start it all in April planting the crop and you spend May, June, and July nursing it a long, feeding it fertilizer and taking care of the weeds and cultivating it. Now this is finally the results of your efforts, the best time of the year.
DAVIDSON: Juliason says this year's crop is good. And a good harvest, he explains, benefits the whole county. Farmers go out to eat more, they buy pick up trucks and other things. Pintos are going for 17 cents a pound. But if he could easily sell to Cuba, Juliason says, the price would go up more than a few cents.
Mr. JULIASON: Without a question, I think you will get to see a nickel, five, six cents, and yeah, that translates back to some money in my pocket. That's important. That market is worth pursuing and we got to knock down these trade barriers to get to that market.
DAVIDSON: If a nickel or six cents sounds like nothing, take a look at the economics of beans. Juliason, like most farmers, can tell you how expensive it is to grow them.
Mr. JULIASON: Labor per acre, I figure $7 an acre. You've got seed that's around $30, $35 an acre. Fertilizer, around $30, $35 an acre.
DAVIDSON: There's the mortgage on the land he owns, rent on the land he doesn't. He spends hundreds of thousands on diesel to power his expensive equipment. It comes out to around $240 per acre. And this year, Juliason will make about $320 an acre. That's just $80 profit on each of 1200 acres.
But open up trade with Cuba, get that extra nickel a pound, and suddenly, Juliason says, he'll make $400 an acre. His profits would double. After a couple of years like that, he says, he could retire early. He could take his wife to Mexico during the harsh North Dakota winter.
Juliason's son Lucas is in a combine on the other end of the field. He hit a rock and wants advice in fixing the rotor. Both of Juliason's sons work with him. They're young, 22 and 28, and don't know much about the Cuban embargo. They just want to farm.
Mr. JULIASON: Oh, it's great having them out in the field. I don't think there is any better feeling than having both of your sons working by your side every day of the week, and I hope they can continue. We get that business in Cuba and then they can continue.
DAVIDSON: A lot of people in North Dakota support free trade with Cuba. The governor and agriculture secretary have visited the place. On one trip, Juliason and some state bigwigs had a long late night dinner with Fidel Castro, laughing over cigars and baseball stories until 3:00 in the morning. The U.S. does export some beans to Cuba, but the rules are so strict that so far it's only a small trickle.
John Bertolt is a Cuba trade skeptic. He's the marketing director of Walhalla Bean Company in Grand Forks, North Dakota. Walhalla buys beans from farmers like Juliason. During harvest, about 20 semis a day show up carrying 50,000 pounds of beans each. They dump them on a conveyor belt, which carries the beans up a steep hill.
Mr. JOHN BERTOLT (Walhalla Bean Company): When we're done with this, it will be approximately 1.2 million pounds in this stem and we're full.
DAVIDSON: Well, it's a hill of beans.
Mr. BERTOLT: There's a mountain of beans.
DAVIDSON: Bertolt is the guy who actually travels the world selling these beans. And he says it's just not worth his while to think too much about Cuba. He thinks the best way to increase bean sales is to convince more Americans to eat them. U.S. beans, he says, are the best in the world.
But they cost more than Chinese beans. So he prefers markets with the money that's spent on a higher quality product. And Cuba, he says, is most definitely not it.
Mr. BERTOLT: I guess in Italy, I know from the several times that I've traveled there, they seem to have a little more affluent lifestyle than what I've seen in the video of Cuba, so I think Cuba's the wrong place to go. So -
DAVIDSON: Bertolt isn't against trade with Cuba. He just doesn't think it'll have the dramatic impact that Juliason envisions. Agriculture economists who study the issue say they're not sure exactly what would happen. Cubans do import lots of beans now, from Brazil and China mostly.
It's not clear how much of that market U.S. growers could take. In fact, one economist says the only way to find out how Cuba trade will help farmers is to see what happens when the trade embargo is lifted.
Adam Davidson, NPR News.
BLOCK: Tomorrow, our series continues from Miami, where reports that Castro may be on his deathbed have led to lots of speculation about Cuba's future.