Fairmont, Minn., farmer Lawrence Sukalski remembers standing in Havana harbor in 2002 only a few months after Hurricane Michelle had devastated much of Cuba.

“I was one of three farmers that was with Cargill to witness the first U.S. grain in 40 years to come to the shores,” he said.

Sukalski, who grows corn and soybeans in southern Minnesota’s Martin County, said he was pleased at the time to help people in desperate need of food, and he’s equally happy that the U.S. is now moving toward normalizing relations with Cuba.

“Without question, this is going to be an opportunity for us to move our grains and our oils and probably some pork and beef,” he said.

The easing of economic and travel restrictions with Cuba could mean a significant bump in export sales for Minnesota farmers and agribusinesses. Food is one of the few products that has been exported to Cuba during the past decade, and the window probably will open wider during the next few years.

“Our top crops are corn and soybeans, and those are the top import items for Cuba,” said Su Ye, chief economist with the Minnesota Department of Agriculture. Ye said Minnesota exported about $26 million in agricultural products to Cuba in 2012, and projected about $20 million for 2013.

Exports to Cuba have varied year to year, sometimes considerably, since federal law in 2001 allowed U.S. agricultural products to be exported there on a limited basis.

Cargill was one of the first companies that began selling food to Cuba, but a cumbersome payment system has been an obstacle, said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, Cargill’s director of international business relations.

Cuban importers must prepay in full or use a letter of credit from a third country, since U.S. banks are not allowed to finance agriculture sales to Cuba. President Barack Obama’s executive order signed in mid-

December will remove some of those barriers, she said, but not all of them.

“We don’t believe we can get on an equal footing with our competitors with the executive order,” Vorwerk said. “It can only take the industry so far.”

Additional changes in financing rules and lifting the trade embargo also will be needed, she said.

Cargill and more than 25 other companies and associations will publicly launch the U.S. Agriculture Coalition for Cuba this week. It’s been in the works for much of the past year, Vorwerk said, with the goal of creating a sustained and viable market for ag products in Cuba.

U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said last month that re-establishing relations with Cuba will streamline ways for Cuba to buy more American agricultural products, and that should benefit several states.

“Predictions are all over the place, but I think a conservative estimate is that (easier financing) would add $20 million in sales from Minnesota,” Ye said. “It will not happen right away, but gradually it will reach that level.”

Dave Torgerson, executive director of the Minnesota Association of Wheat Growers, said Cuba is one of the largest wheat markets in the Caribbean, much of it once purchased from the U.S.

“It’s a big deal,” Torgerson said of further opening the Cuba market, especially since the U.S. has a huge transportation advantage. “Out of the Gulf, you can load ships and it wouldn’t be too long of a haul,” he said.