As the characters in Nelson DeMilles exciting new novel tour Cuba, they visit a farm near Havana. A nice older gentleman explained, in Spanish, all the strides they were making in organic agriculture, says the narrator.

One of his companions offers her own take: All the farms in Cuba are organic because they cant afford chemical fertilizer. Then she explains a little more: Most of this food goes directly to the Communist Party.

Its just a brief scene in The Cuban Affair, which hit #1 on the New York Times bestseller list over the weekend.

Yet it spoke so much truth about a country and its plightas well as the remarkable opportunity for Americans who are willing to trade with this island nation and help it grow more food.

I visited Cuba for the first time this summer. I was on a Caribbean cruise ship with my family and we stopped in Havana for a day.

This hardly makes me an expert on Cuba, but as a farmer and rancher in the United States, I know a few things about food productionand I came away with several clear impressions.

The first one arrived before we even disembarked. An on-board briefing reminded us that Cuba is a Communist country run by dictators, and so American tourists must behave with caution. If we were caught spray-painting Cuba Libre! or Viva Capitalism! on a wall, it probably wouldnt end well.

The presenter also warned us about a more mundane threat: Dont drink the water. More than half a century after Fidel Castros Communist revolution, the island nation is still poor and primitive.

I had expected this injunction. His next point, however, surprised me: If you want a great Cuban sandwich, go to Miami.

I had assumed that world-famous Cuban sandwichesham and cheese with pickles and mustardwould be widely available in Havana, perhaps from street vendors who cater to day trippers.

Yet theyre not, partly because the government crushes entrepreneurship but also, I soon discovered, because Cuban agriculture fails to deliver the basics.

We saw this firsthand almost as soon as we had left the ship. My grandsona big high-school football playerwanted something to eat. So we went to a little caf.

I thought that although we might not enjoy Cuban sandwiches or coffee (dont drink the water!), at least wed get a taste of authentic Cuban cuisine.

From the menu, he tried to order eggs with meat: bacon, sausage, and so on.

With each attempt, the waitress replied, Were out of that right now or We dont have that anymore.

The problem was the meat: They didnt have any, and so he settled for a cheese omelet.

When I inquired furtherhad they not yet received their morning delivery? I learned that Havana suffered from ongoing shortages. The Cubans cant supply the food that their economy demands.

I suspect Nelson DeMille is right: The members of the Communist Party eat well, taking the best farm products, while the ordinary people of Cuba make do with beans and rice.

It doesnt have to be this way. The Cuban people are creative, as I saw after breakfast. We hired a guide who drove us around Havana in a red-and-white 1955 Chevy convertiblea beautiful car that runs on mechanical ingenuity. Cubans cant get new auto parts, but they somehow make classic cars run.

Our car in fact sputtered to a stop three times, but our good-natured driver knew just what to do: He leaped from his seat, lifted the hood, and adjusted a few cables. Then the car started up again.

As we roamed, I could sense Cubas potential. The climate was perfect for growing crops and, from what I could tell, the soil looked fertile. With proper cultivationincluding help from the kinds of big machinery that American companies are so good at makingCuban agriculture would boom.

A few farmers might remain organic by choice, as opposed to necessity. Many, however, would take up the modern practices that have made food so abundant.

At first, theyd produce enough for their own people to eat well. Later, theyd export to consumers everywhere.

A lot must change, of course, starting with Cubas unelected government. The United States, however, should do what it can to nudge Cuba toward greater freedom in politics and economicsand also in farming.