It’s not often that members from both sides in this divided Congress can agree on anything, but two Democrats and two Republicans have joined forces on legislation that could help sell more rice, wheat and other commodities to Cuba.

Reps. Jerry Moran, R-Kan., Stephanie Herseth, D-S.D., Jo Ann Emerson, R-Mo., and Mike Ross, D-Ark., introduced the Agricultural Export Facilitation Act of 2007, which would remove restrictions on travel to and from and sales of agricultural products to the country formerly ruled by Fidel Castro.

Moran, who was chairman of the House Agriculture General Commodities Subcommittee until last month, led a congressional delegation to Cuba in December. They did not meet with Castro or his brother, Raul, but came away saying more should be done to lift the Bush administration’s restrictions on travel and sales transactions with Cuba.

“With the stepping aside of Cuban dictator Fidel Castro, this is an opportune time to encourage the United States to change its trade policies toward Cuba,” said Moran, who spoke at a press conference announcing the introduction of the legislation.

“The actions of our own government have created a climate of uncertainty and have inhibited the sale of agricultural goods. Our unreliable and uncertain trade policies are sending the signal to Cuba that it is easier to purchase its products elsewhere. We are only hurting ourselves.”

Farm organizations such as the American Farm Bureau Federation and the USA Rice Federation issued statements in support of the legislation, which both said could significantly increase the U.S. share of the Cuban market for a number of commodities.

“There are considerable restrictions placed on U.S. agricultural sales to Cuba which impede our marketing efforts and sales to that country,” said AFBF President Bob Stallman. “This legislation would remove those costly barriers.”

“The rice industry greatly appreciates the work of these representatives,” said USA Rice board member Jackie Loewer, a rice producer from Branch, La. “We will fully support their efforts to move this legislation forward. We believe this year represents an opportunity to make some progress on addressing the unwarranted restrictions on agricultural sales to Cuba.”

Rice analysts have said U.S. producers could sell more than 600,000 metric tons of rice per year if the restrictions, which require Cuba to pay for purchases of U.S. agricultural products before they leave U.S. ports, were not in place. Prior to the trade embargo imposed in 1962, Cuba was the No. 1 export market for U.S. rice.

“American farmers and ranchers are unnecessarily shut out from the large and proximate Cuban marketplace,” Congresswoman Herseth said. “In addition to the clear benefits that opening this market would hold for our domestic producers, millions of Cubans are in need of access to a safe and abundant food supply.

“This legislation would clarify that Cuba has the clear opportunity to purchase U.S. agricultural products, and it would re-emphasize the importance of increased markets for our domestic agriculture producers.”

U.S. companies were allowed to sell food and medicines to Cuba in 2000 for the first time in 38 years. In 2005, however, the Treasury Department ruled cash payments must be made in advance before such shipments could leave U.S. ports. H.R. 1026 clarifies that a seller of a product receives payment at the time a Cuban purchaser takes physical possession of that product.

The legislation will eliminate delays and denials for obtaining licenses to travel to Cuba and will allow Cuban officials to obtain visas for meetings with prospective U.S. exporters and for conducting sanitary and phytosanitary inspections of U.S. agriculture facilities.

H.R. 1026 also permits direct payments between Cuban and U.S. financial institutions. This change will permit U.S. exporters to receive payments within hours instead of days and will eliminate an unnecessary transaction fee.

U.S. agriculture sales to Cuba have totaled $1.4 billion since 2000. Last year alone agricultural sales totaled $350 million, up from the previous year. But USA Rice officials have been told Cuba has increased its purchases of rice from Vietnam because of the payment restrictions.

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