The United States has made its first commercial shipment of U.S. wheat to Cuba since it imposed an embargo on trade with the communist country nearly 40 years ago.

The shipment, which departed Houston Jan. 8, was the first installment of 70,000 metric tons of hard red winter wheat purchased by Cuban officials in the wake of Hurricane Michelle.

Wheat industry representatives from Kansas, Texas and Oklahoma attended a brief departure ceremony for the wheat. Henry Jo Von Tungeln, a wheat grower from Oklahoma, led the contingent.

Von Tungeln, chairman of U.S. Wheat Associates and the Wheat Export Trade Education Committee, and others from USW went to Havana 14 months ago as part of a continuing effort to assess Cuba's wheat needs and prepare the way for eventual commercial sales to the country.

“I've been growing wheat since 1949. I do it because I love to work on the land, but also because I like the fact that my wheat is being turned into the bread that provides sustenance for so many people around the world,” Von Tungeln said. “It's past time that U.S. wheat should be made into bread for the children of Cuba.”

Cuba purchased the wheat and other commodities in December in the wake of tremendous devastation caused by Hurricane Michelle, in order to meet the immediate humanitarian needs of the Cuban people.

“It is fantastic that we are able to help when it counts the most,” said Von Tungeln. “And while we are very glad about the sale, we are sorry that it had to come as a result of such a terrible natural disaster.

“This is not the first time that young Cubans will be eating bread made with U.S. wheat,” he said. “But the sale represents another step forward.”

The commercial sales follow two small humanitarian donations made by U.S. wheat groups in 1998, when they privately donated wheat that was ground into flour and provided to CARITAS, the Catholic relief organization, for bread distribution to needy Cuban families.

The president of the National Association of Wheat Growers also applauded the commitment of farmers to opening the Cuban market. “A great deal of hard work from many dedicated people contributed to this shipment,” said Dusty Tallman, a wheat grower from Colorado.

“U.S. wheat producers are extremely proud to play their part in this historic event.”

Wheat industry officials warn that, notwithstanding the recent purchases, current U.S. government rules and regulations on Cuba trade are extremely restrictive, and put a severe damper on future prospects unless those restrictions are eliminated.

For the day, however, Von Tungeln was delighted at the recent evolution of trade relations with Cuba. “This shipment is proof that trade can resume,” he said.