Agricultural organizations are lining up to praise USDA’s decision to permit the use of commodity checkoff dollars to be used for research and information-exchange activities with Cuba.

The announcement, authorizing 22 industry-funded research and promotion programs and 18 marketing order organizations to conduct those activities, was made in Havana on Tuesday during President Obama’s trip to Cuba.

USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack said the decision “is a significant step forward in strengthening our bond and broadening agricultural trade between the United States and Cuba.”

U.S. ag organizations agree, and issued a host of statements in support of the measure.

The U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, representing more than 30 ag organizations, is pleased with USDA efforts in advancing U.S.-Cuban ag relations and “is especially pleased farmer-funded checkoff dollars can now be used to facilitate relationships in country,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, chairman of the coalition.

After more than 50 years, U.S. producers will finally be able to closely engage with their Cuban counterparts in research and information efforts. That will help U.S. producers better understand and serve the Cuban market and help the Cuban people to expand and improve their own ag sector, she said.

U.S. ag groups have long lamented lost opportunity with the island nation and its 11 million people just 90 miles off the southeastern coast of the U.S. Despite the half-century embargo of the communist nation, U.S. ag exports to Cuba have been allowed since the early 1960s but have been hindered by credit restrictions.

Ag organizations have been strong supporters of Obama’s efforts to normalize trade with Cuba and change federal policies that inhibit commerce.

Despite the close proximity to Cuba, U.S. exports accounted for less than $300 million and 16 percent of Cuba’s $1.9 billion ag imports in 2014, according to USDA’s Foreign Agricultural Service.

“American-grown foods hold a clear competitive advantage in the Cuban marketplace, and the use of farmer- and rancher- generated funds to promote and market U.S. farm goods fits the checkoff mission perfectly,” said American Farm Bureau President Zippy Duvall.

Numerous ag organizations called the decision a big step forward in expanding U.S. ag trade with neighboring Cuba, saying it continues the momentum toward normalized trade.

“The important thing to remember about checkoff funds is that they’re farmer dollars … it’s only logical that we as farmers ought to be able to use it to expand whatever markets we see as the most promising to our individual commodities,” said Richard Wilkins, president of the American Soybean Association.

USDA and the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture also signed an MOU to increase bilateral cooperation in agriculture in the mutual interest of both countries to advance ag technologies, ag productivity, food security and sustainable natural resource management.

USDA’s recently approved budget also puts emphasis on export opportunities and invests in establishing trade relationships with Cuba, which imports 80 percent of its food. The budget will provide for USDA in-country personnel to cultivate relations and work through issues, Vilsack said in announcing the budget in February.

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