By the time you read this, hopefully, the Florida vote recount issue will have been resolved by one court or another, and America's long election nightmare will be over.

If by some miracle Texas Gov. George W. Bush is not declared the winner, one of the ironies would be that his campaign may have cost America's farmers hundreds of millions of dollars in sales for nothing.

Let's go back to late September before most Americans knew what a butterfly ballot looked like. That's when House and Senate conferees were thrashing out the details of the fiscal 2001 agricultural appropriations bill.

Several House members and most of the Senators on the ag appropriations conference committee wanted to partially lift the U.S. economic sanctions against Cuba by including an exemption for sales of food and medicine to Cuba in the bill.

But, House Majority Whip Tom Delay, a Republican from Bush's home state, forced the conference committee to include restrictions on financing of the sales by U.S. banks and on travel to Cuba. As a result, Cuban President Fidel Castro vowed not to buy a single pill or grain of food from the United States.

After the restrictions became public, Castro led 800,000 Cubans in a protest at the U.S. diplomatic mission in Havana. "They have included a load of restrictions which are humiliating for our country and make it impossible for us to accept," he said.

At the time of the debate over the appropriations bill, few agricultural lobbyists could predict how important the Florida vote would become in the presidential election. (Another irony is that despite DeLay's attempt to appease the anti-Castro element in Miami-Dade, Vice President Gore still carried the county.)

Farm organizations have been attempting to undo the damage from the bill. But, leaders say they face an uphill battle because of the "arbitrary and capricious nature" of the travel and financing restrictions.

Sen. Pat Roberts, R-Kan., said he would be surprised if any sales took place under the current legislation. "I think we took one step forward, six or seven steps sideways and maybe one step backwards."

Prior to the final vote on the ag appropriations bill, USDA released an economic analysis that said Cuba could become a $1 billion market for U.S. farm commodities within five years - if the trade sanctions were lifted.

Tim Galvin, an economist with USDA's Foreign Agriculture Service, said sales to Cuba could reach $300 million within one or two years if U.S. export credits and other promotional programs could be used. If not, sales might total $25 million to $50 million per year.

Experts with U.S. Wheat Associates, the export promotion arm of the U.S. wheat industry, say they believe they can finance sales through third-country lenders. But, they agree it will require intense negotiations to get the Cubans to agree to buy from U.S. companies.

With the outcome of the election still in doubt, it may be premature to make predictions. But, if Bush's allies are willing to sacrifice the interests of farmers before they get him elected, it could be a long four years for U.S. agriculture.