(UPDATED COVERAGE, Dec. 18)Opening the door for greater agricultural trade, President Barack Obama said Dec. 17 that he is moving to normalize the U.S. relationship with Cuba.

Obama said the U.S. embargo against Cuba will have to be lifted by Congress, but he said that he will ease travel and commerce restrictions. Obama said the U.S. will begin discussions to reestablish diplomatic relations with Cuba, which were severed since 1961. He said the U.S. also plans to reopen an embassy in Havana.

“Fifty years of isolation have not worked,” Obama said. “It’s time for a new approach.”

Some Republicans and Democrats in Congress expressed opposition with lifting the embargo, with Fla. Republican Sen. Marco Rubio promising to “undo” the deal when the new Congress convenes.

Produce and farm leaders supported stronger ties with Cuba.

Cuba has purchased apples in the past from North Carolina, Georgia and Virginia, said Jim Allen, president of the New York Apple Association, Fishers, N.Y. “I’ve always had the feeling if relations were put back to normal for that country, that it could be quite a market,” Allen said. “We are the closest country to them to supply them a lot of goods.”

Allan Henderson, owner and managing director at CL Henderson Produce LLC, Hendersonville, N.C., said that his firm exported fresh apples to Cuba for three years, from about 2003 to 2006. The sales were made under the terms of humanitarian aid, but he said those export licences were not renewed by the U.S. government for political reasons and sales ended in 2006.

Meeting both Fidel Castro and his brother Raul, Henderson went on trade missions to Cuba in 2002 and 2003, and sold them apples through 2006. Cuba would take five to seven loads of apples per week for about four months each year, he said.

“It was a good market for us,” he said. The apples were packed in North Carolina shipped to Jacksonville, where Crowley Freightliners put them on a barge to Cuba. “Everything worked very nicely,” he said. “They were happy with our product and were able to put our (apples) in there a lot cheaper than what they were buying apples from Europe or South America,” he said.

Henderson said the apples were imported by the state-run Al Imports in Havana.

“All of a sudden that opportunity left us and if it (came again) I would be more than happy to start back with them,” Henderson said.

For America, Henderson believes that it is important to be friendly with Cuba. “They are at our back door and they have the capability of being a nasty neighbor, so why not be friends with them?” he said. “If we could become trading partners with them, that is what makes the world go round.”

Bob Stallman, president of the American Farm Bureau Federation, Washington, D.C., said the group supports the move.

“Farm Bureau has long called for a removal of trade restrictions with Cuba, and we believe expanded trade with the U.S. can serve as a cornerstone for additional reforms,” Stallman said in a statement. “The president’s opening to Cuba promises to improve trade conditions by making it easier for Cuba to buy U.S. agricultural and food products.”

The market of 11 million consumers could offer trade opportunities.

Currently, Stallman said U.S. growers can export to Cuba, but third-party banking requirements and limited credit financing make it harder to compete in the market than it should be.

“There is no question that Cuba would be a potential market for a lot of things,” said Desmond O’Rourke, president of Belrose Inc., Pullman, Wash.

Low-cost commodities like potatoes, peas, lentils may find a ready market among Cuba’s poor consumers, while apples and other fruit exports could be expanded to serve the tourist trade there.

O’Rourke said Cuba’s farm sector is in poor shape and not likely to be in a position to export to the U.S. anytime soon.

Mike Stuart, president of the Florida Fruit & Vegetable Association, Maitland, Fla., said there is some resentment among Florida politicians that Obama acted without more public or legislative discussion.

Stuart said Florida fruit and vegetable shippers have never told him that Cuba presents a significant market opportunity for exports, though many see Cuba as a potential long term threat as a competitor. “If you go back and look at the amount of vegetable production that occurred prior to the embargo, back in the 1940s, 1950s and 1960s, it was considerable,” he said.

Whether Cuba agriculture could again become an exporter to the U.S. is uncertain but Stuart speculated it could happen over a number a years.

Details about how Obama’s plan will change current trade and investment realities are unclear, he said.

“I don’t see any immediate impact of this,” Stuart said. Any meaningful change in U.S.-Cuba commercial relations will require some legislative action, he said.