How Cuban Diplomacy Could Help Texas Rice Farming

Half of all U.S. rice is exported internationally – and Cuba used to be one of the larger markets.

By Laura RiceSeptember 29, 2015 11:30 am

Oil rigs, cattle and cotton are all staples long celebrated in the history of Texas industry. But tomorrow the people of Winnie, Texas – a town outside of Beaumont – celebrates the 47th year of the Texas Rice Festival. Rice made lush the plains of southeast Texas long before refineries dotted the landscape.

This year, there’s another cause for celebration: one of the very factors that led to the decline in rice production in Texas might soon be a stimulus.

Dwight Roberts knows a lot about the history of the industry along the Texas gulf coast, he’s head of the Rice Producers Association. There used to be over 300 rice farms in southeast Texas. He says now there are about 40 farms in that area.

Roberts says the number of farms has dwindled for multiple reasons: “Urban sprawl, for one thing. Farms have gotten bigger,” he says. “But you know, much of Houston is sitting on what used to be rice farms today.”

Roberts also says that rice is one of the most expensive crops to grow. “If you have a lean year or two, people can get out of the business and its very hard to get back in,” he says.

Another reason the rice markets dwindled? Back in the 60s the Cold War had a major impact in Texas. So did U.S. relations with Iraq and Iran.

“Cuba was the largest market for Texas rice at one time,” Roberts says. “Iran and Iraq were two of the largest markets for U.S. rice in the rice history of the United States. So those three markets affected Texas tremendously,” Roberts says. “What goes on internationally has repercussions in Texas and in other areas.”

But now the U.S. is looking at normalization of relations in Cuba, and Roberts says this could be a resurgence of the rice industry in Texas.

“Almost on a weekly basis things are improving,” he says. “We still have a ways to go. There is a travel ban, you have to go with a license. Some of the commercial terms are not in place for doing business. But we certainly are going in the right direction… and it will benefit a lot of farmers.”