Congress cleared the way for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural commodities in 2000. But groups such as the USA Rice Federation say a 2005 interpretation of the law by an arm of the Treasury Department, requiring payment before goods were shipped, severely restricted sales.
"More and more in Congress feel the Cuba (trade) policy has served its time and it's time for new and better ways to deal with" it, said Jamie Warshaw, federation chairman and a rice mill operator in Lake Charles, La.
At least 15 senators have joined agricultural groups in calling for greater trade with Cuba, including Montana Sen. Max Baucus, chairman of the Senate Finance Committee. He plans to introduce legislation to make it easier for U.S. farmers and ranchers to do business with Cuba.
Cuba was the top U.S. rice export market before the 1962 embargo. The industry believes if restrictions were eased, the island market could reach 400,000 metric tons a year or better for rice growers in Arkansas, Louisiana, Texas, Missouri and Mississippi.
If realized, Cuba could become the United States' No. 2 rice export market, well behind Mexico but firmly ahead of Venezuela. It also could mean business for Gulf ports, such as New Orleans, which once counted Cuba as a leading trade partner.
It's unclear, however, how Cuba would react.
The Department of Agriculture said in a March 2008 report that officials with the Cuban agency handling U.S. food imports are "somewhat apprehensive about allowing the United States to provide a significantly larger proportion of Cuba's food import requirements."
Richard Fontenot, a rice grower near Ville Platte in south Louisiana, said freer trade would give U.S. rice producers a "definite advantage" over competitors in Thailand or Vietnam.
In March, the Office of Foreign Assets Control said it did not plan to revisit the Bush administration's interpretation of the 2000 Cuba-trade law.
Before the ruling, Cuban buyers would begin payment of goods once they were shipped from U.S. port, routing the payments through third-party banks. There were no reports of buyers taking possession of shipments before completing payments, the 15 senators told Treasury Secretary Timothy Geithner in a March letter.
The senators said that practice worked well and have asked Geithner to change the Bush interpretation, which they believe could allow agricultural sales to Cuba at more robust levels.
Rice exports to Cuba fell from about 176,630 metric tons in 2004 to less than 13,000 metric tons in 2008, the federation said.
U.S. agricultural exports to Cuba averaged more than $350 million a year between 2004 and 2006 before hitting $691 million last year. Parr Rosson, a Texas A&M University agricultural economist and director of its Center for North American Studies, attributes the spike in dollar value in part to factors such as the hurricanes that devastated Cuba in 2008 and the lower value of the U.S. dollar.
For the first two months of 2009, agriculture sale to Cuba were about $6 million lower than in the same period in 2008. Flynn Adcock, the center's international program coordinator, said it's difficult to say whether this year's sales will top last year's, given the global economic woes, but said it's possible to at least near last year's levels.
Rosson said sales for agricultural commodities and goods to Cuba - meat, rice, Northern-produced peas, corn, soybeans and dairy products, among them - could top $1 billion, if restrictions were relaxed.
Even with the Bush policy change, the United States remained Cuba's most important food and agricultural product supplier, accounting for more than a quarter of such imports, according to the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
A more open market would likely give U.S. rice exporters an advantage over competitors such as Vietnam. Mostly that's because Cuba is near major shipment locations such as south Louisiana, cutting shipping costs and time to market.
Roger Johnson, former North Dakota agriculture commissioner who said he has visited Cuba eight times, said the trade embargo has been a "disastrous policy" that no longer makes sense.
"We ought to be selling more food. We ought to be removing the barriers to selling food," said Johnson, now head of the National Farmers Union.
But he also said he understands diplomacy and the need for give-and-take, from Cuba, too.
While some farm groups want trade normalized, they acknowledge that isn't likely to happen soon.
"It's going to be a slow process," Warshaw said.