Monday, January 17, 2022
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Cuban trade delegation Fort Worth visit plan runs aground

🕐 15 min read

One man flying 151,884.45 miles – exceeding six trips around the equator – in less than a year might seem like a stunt or the work realities of a billionaire entrepreneur or the folly of some frequent-flyer fanatic.

Instead, it’s logical for a man on a mission to make Fort Worth the railhead/nexus of the beef cattle trading universe, and that man/flier is Fort Worth-based cattle marketing specialist Peter John “PJ” Budler.

Since 2011, he and his websites have been evolving as conduits for international buying and selling of live seedstock cattle and frozen semen and embryos from prized purebred sires and dams.

With his 2016 arena work, after judging more than 50 breeding cattle events since 2006, PJ Budler became the first person to judge a national cattle show on all six populated continents – plus Cuba.

And the Cuba connection was going to be extra special – for Cowtown, the Fort Worth Stock Show & Rodeo and the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic Area – because Budler’s globe-trotting focus on trade had engaged a Cuban trade delegation to come here. It was to be the first of its kind at least since the U.S. trade embargo was raised against Fidel Castro’s regime some 56 years ago. The Cubans were scheduled to attend the Stock Show’s first “Brahman Champion of the World Week” events, Budler’s creation, starting the first Sunday of the Stock Show.

That visit didn’t happen, Budler said earlier this month after receiving a Cuban government official’s letter announcing the demise of the trade mission. Despite the thaw in relations between the two countries, politics was again to blame.

“They’re not letting any of their delegates come because the U.S. embassy blocked one of two delegates scheduled to arrive here [for the planned visit],” Budler said. U.S. officials, he said, gave no reason for denying the Cuban a visa. This, it should be noted, was prior to the inauguration of President Donald J. Trump.

“Bad news . . . but we’ll keep working it. We’re not going to stop,” he said.

One delegation member had already opted out of the trade mission that Budler had proposed in March and worked to consummate ever since. The two remaining delegates were also to tour some Texas ranches; one was to speak at a Texas A&M University seminar on beef cattle industry issues, opportunities and challenges.

In the long run, Budler said, his flying, cattle judging and cattle trade-boosting efforts still could help spawn fruitful Fort Worth-Cuba business and educational relationships.

The Cubans’ visit, when it does come, he predicted, will be a groundbreaking pre-cursor “to weaving threads” of Texas agricultural trade opportunities. The TCU Ranch Management program and Texas A&M could also begin forging Cuban links in education.

“No one is going to go to Cuba and get rich quick,” Budler said, forecasting many years needed for dramatic societal changes there, from the government-managed Cuban economy to a more capitalism-driven economy, as well as extensive education/training – plus pertinent U.S. foreign policy decisions. “There’ll be a lot of sowing before anyone reaps.”

Cattle-related trade gains for Texas, Budler said, will be in registered and commercial seedstock cattle, prime cattle bloodline genetics in the forms of embryos and semen, and a myriad of agricultural and beef industry services ranging from savvy marketing and modern feed and food science consulting/training to ranch, feedlot and beef slaughtering/packing/processing management and accounting – plus more two-way tourism.

The Cubans’ visit was Budler’s idea, for which he served as U.S. catalyst with an Italian international trade veteran as his Caribbean ramrod, while Budler was judging national cattle shows in Havana last year. U.S. and Cuban officials had lent their auspices to consummating the visit.

But that “sowing” now will start more slowly, for sure, and whether it flowers will depend on Trump’s decisions.

Budler said he doesn’t think Trump’s plans or past comments prompted the visa being denied. Instead, he said, the reason may have been financial because U.S. regulations cite foreign visitors’ ability to pay their way as one key factor for obtaining visas. “We were sponsoring the trip,” he said, that is planning to pay the Cubans’ trade visit expenses.

Budler said he expects the Trump administration to continue the trade-opening process and perhaps even accelerate it. “He’s a businessman, and this is business,” Budler said.

So far, business-bred and Republican rebel Trump does not appear ready to thwart the previous administration’s Cuba initiative. And Texas agricultural leaders, Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, Texas Agriculture Commissioner and outspoken Trump supporter Sid Miller and trade economists have said that both Texas crop and livestock sectors stand to gain from opening Cuban trade channels. One Texas A&M projection puts Texas agriculture exports to Cuba at nearly $19 million annually, with that multiplied to $43 million in total annual economic impact.

With the Cubans are still decades behind in agricultural, agribusiness and food science technologies, they sorely need to breed healthier, more efficient, faster-growing, higher quality beef-producing herds and otherwise catch up with modern food industry practices, Budler said, noting that all Cuban herds are government owned.

To boot, Budler said, Texas is the epicenter of breeding and exporting the world’s best Brahman and Brahman hybrid cattle and genetics — the Cubans’ beef genetics of choice due to the Brahman bloodlines’ heat tolerance, pest resistance, stamina and beefy performance in Cuba’s tropical conditions.

“The Cubans want our Brahman genetics,” he said.

Meat export opperations are a different story. With Cuban family income behind the times due to generally low wages and wide-ranging poverty, Cubans typically cannot afford U.S. choice and prime beef cuts. Thus, exports of U.S. low-end quality beef to Cuba may also increase, but that volume is forecast to be a minor, low-end boost to U.S. beef trade, according to Texas economists.

Nevertheless, once the embargo is lowered, the Cubans will also buy U.S. top-end quality beef “for their tourism industry – for hotels and restaurants,” Budler predicted.

“Essentially, we’re going to be sending American beef to Cuba to feed Americans, . . . and French and Canadians and other tourists from around the world,” he said. “The beef eaten by Cubans, mostly, will be grown in Cuba.”

Jon Garza, TDA’s international livestock trade specialist, is expected to attend “World Champion” events at the Stock Show; he was to welcome the Cubans. Despite repeated requests for input to this story, Garza and other TDA sources were not available for comment.

Regardless, on the overall international trade scale, Cuba is expected to remain a relatively minor U.S. trading partner. That’s not surprising. However, given Cuba’s 50-year lag on cattle breeding improvements; its 11.3 million people, just over a third of Texas’ population tally, wanting more basic needs and luxuries; and its 2.5 million cattle, about the size of Montana’s cattle population, Budler foresees Cuba eventually becoming a good, steady Texas trading partner.

For now, he said, the bigger, prime short-term trading potentials for Texas cattle and cattle genetics lie in former Soviet nations and in South America and Mexico.

That’s especially true in nations like Kazakhstan, where dynamic, young, enterprising entrepreneurs are aiming to produce more beef and lasso bigger shares of the rising China beef trade, he said. Those trading trails are already busy, and Budler expects them to get even busier for Texas cattle interests.

Budler has been there, judged cattle there, seen the evidence in person. He credits the internationally spreading demand for his cattle judging skills to being in the right spots at the right times, his cattle savvy from roots in ranching and his networking whenever wherever possible. Also not hurting his ops, he’s articulate, fluent in two languages, semi-fluent in a couple of others, college educated and tall like a cowboy is supposed to be, wearing that Stetson hat.

Having visited and networked with cattle raisers, traders and agricultural officials in nearly 60 nations, Budler has come to know cattle breeders and traders around the world while creating the “Champion of the World” events for Herefords and now Brahman, both featured this month at the Stock Show & Rodeo.

He grew up as a fifth generation South African rancher, worked on a crop and cattle farm in Scotland and on a North Dakota ranch, started cattle ventures in Mauritius and Namibia and relocated to Fort Worth in 2011-2012 to found and operate, an umbrella website with multiple breed-focused websites for trading around the world.

Folk texting Budler last year could easily find him responding from a plane en route to Qatar or from cattle show arenas in Astana, Kazakhstan or Havana, Cuba. In 2016 alone, he judged 18 breed shows in 10 countries: Denmark, South Africa, Mexico, Paraguay, Uruguay, France, Canada, Kazakhstan, the United States and Cuba.

The Stockyards Linkage

“PJ is respected by the cattle industry all over the world,” said North Side historian, preservationist and promoter Steve Murrin, who’s also a cattle raiser. “He knows the industry. He knows quality cattle. He knows the people, the movers and shakers. He has their trust.”

Budler also has joined ranks with Murrin in efforts to expand, upgrade and multiply livestock-oriented events for the Fort Worth Stockyards National Historic Area. They share a passion for retaining, restoring and enhancing the area’s Cowtown history and “cowboy aura” while adding, renovating and expanding facilities and broader attractions to boost tourism.

Murrin said Budler brings “a fresh voice” for maintaining “the authenticity” of the North Side’s cowboy/cowgirl, stockyards cattle trading and beef-packing business history, which is “already drawing some 2 million visitors a year.”

Budler understands that tourists “are searching for the real thing – the real Texas. Visitors who come here perceive it is real,” Murrin said. “We want to make it credible, real and fun and a place to do business.”

Although Budler isn’t so sure how much he’s helping to attract more cattle events to the Stockyards, he and Murrin joined forces with other cattle folk to bring a major Texas Longhorn cattle event to the Stockyards area this August and the 2018 World Braford Congress and a portion of the 2018 World Brangus Congress to the Fort Worth Convention Center and Stockyards. More international participation and events are anticipated.

Budler’s Champion of the World guests last year not only attended Stock Show events but also were feted by the city at a Stockyards-area restaurant, hosted by Mayor Betsy Price and Murrin.

The Cuba Connection

Despite losing a chance to meet Fidel Castro in March, having a second cattle judging assignment there canceled in September due to U.S.-Cuban politics and now having the Cuban trade mission scrubbed, Budler counts his two visits to Cuba in 2016 as successful.

For the March 15-18 International Congress on Animal Improvement in Havana, Budler was invited to judge the Cuban national shows for Brahman, Charolais and Santa Gertrudis cattle – and to speak on marketing, budgeting, managing human capital and related business skills at a cattle/beef industry conference.

“They want to modernize and become a free market,” Budler said. “It was almost childlike, discussing things we’ve moved on from 40, 50 years ago,” he said, adding that the Cubans are ready to learn and move up fast. “They’ve got talented people.”

He performed in March as contracted. Aided by an Argentine as interpreter in the arena, Budler evaluated about 300 cattle entries in the three breed shows. Then he watched other breed shows, networked with cattle folk and listened to other seminar speakers before Air Force One arrived on President Obama’s historic Cuba trip. The showgrounds were near the airport, and everyone was told to leave ahead of Obama’s arrival.

“We were locked in the airport terminal when he arrived,” Budler recalled. “The whole city shut down.” That included the last day of the International Congress.

Castro was supposed to attend that day; hence, Budler missed a chance to meet the Cuban leader before he died.

Nonetheless, out of his discussions with Cubans – talks facilitated and made successful by an Italian named Giovanni de la Mora – came the ultimate approval for two top executives of Cuba’s national cattle raisers association and a Cuban agriculture department representative to visit Fort Worth during the 2017 Stock Show.

Budler said De la Mora had been supplying medical products to Cuba since the late 1970s, despite the U.S. embargo. De la Mora also has a Hereford cattle herd in South America.

“He found me through my Hereford Champion of the World events,” Budler said, adding that De la Mora was the man who recruited him to judge the March shows in Cuba.

Budler was invited back to Havana, this time to judge once again the Brahman and Santa Gertrudis breeds at major shows in September, and his wife, Koula, was able to go with him.

Then politics intruded again, this time as the U.S. Congress wrangled over President Obama’s choice for the new U.S. ambassador to Cuba. To ensure no political ramifications rippling from Havana to Washington, D.C. and no possible implications of Cuban finagling while Congress was wrangling, the Cuban government refused admission of all Americans to the showgrounds.

“I understood, but it was frustrating,” Budler said, noting that he and Koula were in Cuba before being told that the cattle show judging would go on without him.

Ironically, the snub appeared to yield blessings, giving Budler time needed to network more extensively for the Cubans’ Fort Worth visit. And he and Koula, for the first time in years, had time for being tourists together, seeing all the popular sites such as Hemingway’s favorite pub, Che Guevara’s home, the famous Catholic cathedral and the Cubans’ big display of relics, reproductions and photos giving their take on the 1960s U.S.-Cuban missile crisis.

“After the shutout episode,” Budler said, “I received a surge of mail and email from Cubans apologizing, not wanting to burn any of our bridges, wanting their representatives to come to our Brahman World Champion events at the Stock Show.”

But perhaps the biggest long-term blessing, though, came when the official snub yielded Budler another invitation, this time to join an international team working with Cuban experts “trying to establish a sustainable beef cattle industry for Cuba” and “inviting us to be part of developing their beef cattle industry at every level,” Budler said.

“That would not have taken place if I had been judging the cattle in Havana,” he said.

The Kazakhstan Ice and Bull

Amidst all the travel and the networking, Budler made agricultural history when he judged his first Asian cattle show, in Kazakhstan.

Arriving in the capital city Astana in late October and then evaluating Herefords, Angus and Kazakhstan Whiteface cattle outside in 12- to 19-degree weather, Budler became the first individual to judge a national cattle show on every continent – well, all excluding Antarctica, given that judging frozen cattle is not a priority among the world’s cowboys.

He has now evaluated and ranked a variety of breeds in South America, Australasia, Europe, Africa, North America and Asia.

But he might never have been able to judge again if not for the icy arena ground in Astana. It was Kazakhstan’s first national cattle show, and the indoor facilities were excellent; not so much for the outdoor arena where the cattle were turned loose to be judged. Therein Budler stood, eyeing the bull and longing for the 90-plus temperatures in Havana and even his 100-degree day while judging at the State Fair of Texas earlier in October.

“The bull was frustrated and charged at me, but as he slipped on the ice, I was able to jump up on the arena railing,” Budler said.

That ice enabled Budler to avoid injury.

Koula, of course, enabled her husband to reach his judging landmark across six continents. Without Koula’s support for relocating to the United States and starting his new career in 2011-2012 and without her own radio/TV stardom in South Africa and her still fledgling U.S. communications media career, he could not pursue his dream, Budler said.

“Who would ever choose to sit in a plane for that long?” he asked rhetorically early this month, citing his flying record since last January.

He would, for his ongoing mission: “We’re still working on Fort Worth being the global beef cattle headquarters,” Budler said. “It’s essential that there’s one place that they, cattle traders worldwide, can keep coming back to.”

The Stock Show Linkage

Budler’s first “Brahman Champion of the World Week,” Jan. 15-24, will surely spark even more Central and South American, Caribbean regional, Mexican, African and Asian interest in the Stock Show. Cattle raisers in all those regions make Brahman and Brahman hybrids their herd-improvement breeds of choice.

“We are excited to host the new Brahman Champion of the World event,” Fort Worth Stock Show livestock division manager Stefan Marchman manager stated in a news release. “Our goal is to build on the success of the Hereford Champion of the World events hosted at our livestock show the past two years, working with PJ Budler.”

Marchman said the dual events draw “cattle producers from across the globe. These men and women not only experience our world-class livestock show, but gain an appreciation of the U.S. cattle and beef production infrastructure that is second to none, globally.”

Budler’s “knowledge and experience with international trade and modern cattle genetics are valuable to not only the Stock Show, but the U.S. beef industry,” Marchman said.

He’s not alone in praising the 36-year-old Budler.

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