By Marc Frank
HAVANA, Dec 19 (Reuters) - Cuba, trying to lure people back to the land and lift food production, has modified a land lease program so that private farmers can rent more land and keep it in their family as if they owned it, farmers said over the weekend.
The measures, adopted at a recent Council of Ministers meeting and not yet announced, are the latest loosening of the doctrinaire communism that has ruled Cuban agriculture policy for decades and were hailed by farmers as a step forward.
Farmers said in telephone interviews they were told in local meetings they will be able to lease up to 165 acres from the state beginning in January, compared with the current maximum of 33 acres mandated in a program begun in 2008.
They said the leases will extend for up to 25 years, compared with the current 10 years, and can be renewed and passed on to family members and in some cases laborers.
Farmers also will be allowed for the first time to build homes on the leased land and make other improvements under a regulation that guarantees the state will reimburse them if they lose their lease.
They had complained that the small size of the plots, short leases and other restrictions hampered production.
"These measures deal with many of the problems we face and give us security in terms of our work," Anselmo Hernandez, one of 150,000 people who have leased 4 million acres (1.6 million hectares) of land, said from eastern Cuba.
"Twenty-five years is a life-time of work and faced with whatever problem the family will be the benefactor of what we have done," he added.
Cuba nationalized most property after the 1959 revolution and the state owns more than 70 percent of the arable land on the Caribbean island. Private farmers, using only 24 percent of the land, were responsible for 57 percent of the food produced in Cuba in 2010, a local agricultural expert said.
The expert, asking for anonymity, said the new changes "amount to the state granting land to the private sector indefinitely under the guise of leasing, and no doubt most farmers expect that well before their lease is up they will get title to it."
President Raul Castro has made agriculture the centerpiece of his efforts to reform the stagnating, Soviet-style economy in favor of more local and private initiative, but food production has increased only slightly since he replaced his brother, Fidel Castro, in 2008 and remains below 2005 levels.
The country imports a budget-busting 60 percent to 70 percent of the food it consumes and the average age of farmers and laborers is now 50 years old.
Castro has decentralized decision-making on agricultural policy, increased prices paid for produce and promised farmers more freedom to grow and sell their crops.
In November new measures were announced making it easier for farmers to get bank credits and allowing them to sell produce directly to the tourism sector, bypassing the state.
They are all part of more than 300 reforms adopted by the ruling Communist Party at an April congress to "update" the economy.
Oscar Palacios, president of the "Antonio Briones Montoto" agricultural cooperative in the central town of Florida, said the new farming measures were "of enormous importance."
"Now producers will feel much more motivated and secure that the fruit of their labor will be theirs," he said.
"They bring farmers and their families closer to the land they work. They make them feel the land is really theirs."
(Editing by Jeff Franks and Anthony Boadle)