By Marc Frank
HAVANA (Reuters) - Cuba has begun clearing sickle bush from thousands of hectares of rice land as soaring prices force it to reconsider importing hundreds of thousands of tonnes of the population's main staple, local media reported.
"The Ruta Invasora rice farm is working to recover a large part of its land largely covered with Marabu (sickle bush) and other brush," Camaguey province's weekly Communist party newspaper reported.
Before the collapse of former-benefactor the Soviet Union, Cuba's nine provincial rice farms, covering 150,000 hectares, produced up to 260,000 tonnes of consumable rice.
Decapitalization, plague and drought followed.
Last year the farms produced around 70,000 tonnes while dry-land rice farms at the municipal level and private producers added another 150,000 tonnes to output.
In recent years, Cuba has imported more than 500,000 tonnes of rice annually, mainly from Vietnam.
"The price of a tonne of rice has gone from $223 in 2002 to $855 this year," Igor Montero, the vice president of state-food importer Alimport, said this week on national television.
The price and availability of rice is a politically volatile issue in Cuba, with the government subsidizing the cost through a ration system.
Rice is the Caribbean island's most important staple, with minimum domestic consumption estimated at 700,000 tonnes annually.
New Cuban President Raul Castro has prioritized agriculture since taking over for his ailing brother, Fidel Castro, in February.
The younger Castro, 76, has increased resources flowing to the sector, decentralized decision-making and distribution, increased prices the state pays for products to private and cooperative producers, among other measures.
The Camaguey newspaper said Venezuela was providing financing for machinery and other supplies to get that particular provincial farm up and running again.
"With adequate resources production should return to previous levels of 24,000 tonnes per year," farm director Idelino Alvarez was quoted as stating.
A recent national radio broadcast reported that in Granma province, Cuba's biggest rice producer, "new lands are being readied to plant rice."
Cuban yields compare poorly with other Caribbean Basin areas, so improved cultivation could double output without increasing land use.
A rice joint venture with China, Taichi SA, has worked for a decade to raise yields on small local plots.
Vietnamese experts have also provided assistance for a number of years.
(Reporting by Marc Frank, editing by Matthew Lewis)