WASHINGTON – The University of Arkansas on Friday signed a formal pledge to assist the Panama Ministry of Agriculture over the next five years.

Mark Cochran, vice president for agriculture at the UA System, said the deal would re-energize a 60-year relationship between Fayetteville and the Central American nation.

"We are looking to foster cultural and educational activity," he told reporters during a telephone call that followed the signing ceremony in Panama City.

Joining Cochran at the ceremony were three members of the Arkansas congressional delegation – Sen. John Boozman, Sen. Mark Pryor and Rep. Rick Crawford, R-Jonesboro, on a three-day trade mission to Panama and Columbia.

Before the signing ceremony, the three lawmakers and Cochran had lunch with Panamanian President Ricardo Martinelli. The meeting lasted about two hours with Martinelli regaling the group with stories from his college days in Fayetteville. Martinelli is a 1973 graduate. Boozman was also there between 1969 and 1973 but did not graduate from the school.

"It was kind of like old times in the sense he was at the University of Arkansas when I was there," Boozman said.

Pryor, a 1985 graduate, noted that Martinelli remains a steadfast Razorback fan, and brought them to his office to show off a Razorback football helmet that he keeps as a souvenir.

"It was really a great meal and he is a very personable, charming individual," said Crawford, who graduated from Arkansas State University in Jonesboro.

The relationship between Panama and the University of Arkansas dates back to 1951 when the Fayetteville land-grant institution was the first in the nation to assemble an agricultural foreign mission.

Between 1951 and 1956, 24 people from the school traveled to Panama to help establish a similar teaching, research and extension program there.

There are 74 Panamanians now enrolled on the Fayetteville campus.

Cochran said that the agreement signed Friday should lead to a closer relationship between the school and Panama, including more student and faculty exchanges.

Mike Vayda, the dean of the Bumpers College of Agricultural, Food and Life Sciences in Fayetteville, said the relationship should provide a "great opportunity" to expand internship programs, particularly within the school’s hospitality program.

Dan Hendrix and Herbert Morales from the Arkansas World Trade Center in Rogers were also at the signing ceremony in Panama City.

"We think this is a great day for Arkansas trade," Hendrix said.

Neither Panama nor Columbia makes Arkansas’s list of top 25 trading partners, according to the U.S. Census. But, Hendrix said there are opportunities for growth. Earlier this year, the Center brought representatives from nine Arkansas businesses to a regional trade show held in Panama. Several of the businesses placed orders, he said.

During the luncheon, Crawford said he also had an opportunity to speak with the Panamanian minister of agriculture, who was seated beside him. Cochran served as a translator for the pair.

"There are some great opportunities here for Arkansas," Crawford said.

Congress last year ratified free trade agreements with Panama and Columbia. Those agreements will lower tariffs now paid on American goods exported to those nations, which should help boost trade.

Panama has a growing economy and is also in the process of widening the Panama Canal so that larger container ships from Asia can pass through to ports on the East Coast. The project is expected to be completed in 2014.

"I’m excited about the huge expansion of the Panama Canal. It is really going to change the way freight is moving in our country," Boozman said.