- Cullman, Alabama


November 28, 2012

NATION: Virginia farmers find an eager trade partner: Cuba

RICHMOND, Va. — Queen Victoria is said to have had a bite of an Albemarle Pippin and — poof! — away went the British tariff on the juicy Virginia-grown apple.

Trade barriers haven't tumbled quite so quickly for Henry Chiles, whose two grandfathers started shipping Pippins overseas in wooden barrels 100 years ago.

The Charlottesville, Va., orchardman has managed without too much trouble to peddle the apples he grows next door to Thomas Jefferson's Monticello across Europe, Mexico and Central America. But as he expands into his newest market, Cuba, he faces substantial obstacles — ones that would stay stubbornly in place even if Fidel or Raul Castro suddenly took a passionate liking to his Pippins.

"Always a lot of challenges, a lot of paperwork, holdups," said Chiles, 77, patriarch of the family-owned Crown Orchard and Carter Mountain Orchard. "It's difficult."

It's been 12 years since the United States relaxed a trade embargo with the communist nation to allow exports of food and medical products, but strings were attached that make doing business more cumbersome and expensive. Cuba cannot buy on credit from U.S. companies. And sales must be handled through a third-party bank, since there is no direct banking between the countries.

Chiles and other Virginia farmers nevertheless see great promise in the island, so much so that Virginia Secretary of Agriculture and Forestry Todd Haymore this month led his sixth annual trade mission to Havana. And the commonwealth's willingness to put up with the hassles seems to be paying off.

While total U.S. sales to Cuba have plummeted by nearly half since the start of the recession — from $711.5 million in 2008 to $363.3 million last year, according to the Commerce Department — Virginia's have grown. State agricultural exports to the island have shot up from $25 million to $30 million before the recession to $65 million last year. Most of the exports are soybeans, for use in animal feed, and apples, which are regarded as a small luxury.

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