Cows to Cuba

A South Florida rancher is using bovine diplomacy to improve relations with the island nation

In the late 1840s, Lykes and McKay began shipping thousands of cattle from Tampa and Fort Myers to Havana. During this period McKay sailed to India in search of bovines that could adapt easily to Florida's hot and humid climate. He came back with a boatload of Brahma bulls, and proceeded to breed them with Brown Swiss heifers on his ranch outside Tampa. There was no embargo against Cuba in those days, but for a time McKay had a reputation for sailing his ship past a U.S. Army blockade in order to supply beef to Confederate soldiers during the American Civil War. Between 1868 and 1878, Florida cattlemen exported more than 1.5 million cattle to Cuba. Spanish colonists on the island would pay up to eight times more than cattle consumers in Florida, Wright notes. Demand was especially high in 1879, after Cuba's First War of Independence against Spain; the ten-year conflict had devastated the country's cattle supply. That year McKay's ships carried about 100,000 head of beef cattle to Cuba.

Around the turn of the century, H.T. Lykes's seven sons began acquiring land in Cuba, where they found they could fatten cattle faster even than in Florida. "It was a mirror image -- the cattle and beef industry in Cuba was similar to the cattle and beef industry in Florida," Wright says. "The main slaughterhouse was outside Havana, and several ranches were across the country. There was a good rail system in Cuba to get the cattle to the central slaughterhouse."

After the ouster of dictator Fulgencio Batista in 1959, revolutionary forces seized a 15,000-acre ranch Lykes Brothers operated in Bayamo, in eastern Cuba, and converted it to a cooperative. Wright says the acreage was converted to sugar production. The company has had a $3.6 million claim for the land on file with the U.S. Justice Department ever since. "When the government nationalized all private landholdings and businesses, those families like my own who'd been there had no choice but to leave, and the embargo made it impossible for them to go back." In other words, Wright has a decent excuse to hold a grudge against the Cuban government. But he doesn't. "The embargo has taken a greater toll on the people of Cuba than any other thing over the last 40 years," he says quietly. "Anything that divides and separates them has to be removed as much as possible so that the unification of the Cuban people can take its own course."

John Parke Wright IV (at right in middle photo) and 
Havana's leading rancher, Ramon Castro, are trying to 
steer their nations toward friendly relations
John Parke Wright IV (at right in middle photo) and Havana's leading rancher, Ramon Castro, are trying to steer their nations toward friendly relations

Dairy cows would be one unifier that Wright could provide. Last year he accompanied a group of Cuban veterinarians and agriculture officials to New York and Pennsylvania to pick out 148 of them.

Wright's first step in that deal was to learn where a well-known South Florida dairy gets its cows. "McArthur is in South Florida. It produces great milk and ice cream, and is one of our best dairies," he explains. He persuaded McArthur Dairy's supplier in Pennsylvania and others from neighboring New York to consider a sale to Cuba.

Those dairy cows, which included Jerseys and Holsteins, were acclimatized in Florida and then shipped out of Fort Lauderdale's Port Everglades last August. Nothing could be more logical for Wright. "South Florida is the closest thing you'll find to Cuba. We're in the same geographic zone. We just have a false economic barrier." About a hundred of the animals were "bred" heifers -- that is, pregnant -- and have since given birth at their new home, the Niña Bonita Ranch outside Havana. Most of those cows are now each producing about fourteen liters of milk per day, he notes: "That's a big production jump from the previous standard in Cuba.

"One particular ice cream company wants to order some of these cattle because it's just right for their ice cream," he says with a smile. "It's the Flamingo brand ice cream. It's a very fine ice cream."

This past January Wright hosted specialists from Cuba's Ministry of Agriculture and the Institute of Veterinary Science, who traveled to the Sunshine State to select a shipment of beef cattle. They picked 80 Brangus cows (a cross of three-eighths Brahma with five-eighths Angus) from Wright's ranch; 80 Brafords (a cross between a Brahma and a Hereford) from Fort Pierce rancher Bud Adams; and 81 Beef Masters from a variety of other Florida ranchers. The deal also included three bulls of each breed. The 50 Black Angus added to the order two weeks ago will come from the Baldwin Angus Ranch in Ocala.

At about 950,000 head, Florida's inventory of beef cattle ranks eleventh in the United States. That means ranchers in the Sunshine State have some political clout. The Florida Cattlemen's Association is not sticking its neck out against the embargo, however, perhaps not wanting to alienate pro-embargo legislators the ranchers may need to rely on for other matters. Still the FCA, which lobbies in Tallahassee and Washington, D.C., on behalf of its 4000 members, has given a quiet nod of approval. "I'm in favor of Florida ranchers being profitable," declares Jim Handley, the association's vice president and spokesman. "If they can find a profitable market somewhere, that's great. What they do as individuals is their prerogative."

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