Havana harvest: Organic agriculture in Cuba’s capital

by Mickey Ellinger and Scott Braley

Havana-harvest-112409-3-by-Scott-Braley-web, Havana harvest: Organic agriculture in Cuba’s capital, World News & Views We are looking at the end of (relatively) cheap oil, food and transportation, crises that have already had a devastating impact on Third World nations and communities of color. These issues hit Cuba a stunning blow in the early 1990s, which they overcame by using what they have – scientific intelligence, organization and human energy instead of money and machines.

On a recent visit we learned that Cuba has been raising its fruits and vegetables organically for more than 15 years, using worm and vegetable compost and integrated and natural pest management to raise crops for its people. In the process they have decentralized agricultural production, tripled farmers’ average income, built stronger communities and shown the way to living well after the end of cheap oil.

When Cuba overthrew the dictator Batista in 1959, wealthy Europeans, Americans and Cubans fled the revolutionary society and the U.S. cut off economic and political relations. Cuba turned to the Soviet Union, and for about 30 years exported its sugar, nickel, coffee and tobacco to the socialist world at better than market prices. Russian oil powered agriculture and Russian cars and trucks filled the roads.

Havana-harvest-112409-5-by-Scott-Braley-web, Havana harvest: Organic agriculture in Cuba’s capital, World News & Views The plantations owned by foreigners became state farms. Cubans were paid better and had more say in their working conditions, but the structure of the economy – what was produced and how – did not change that much. People worked on big farms drenched in fertilizer and pesticides, and almost 60 percent of Cuba’s food was imported, paid for with income from the socialist bloc.

By the 1980s, Cuban biologists and ecologists were already challenging these methods and urging attention to integrated pest management and methods of cultivation better suited to Cuba’s relatively infertile tropical soil. Their studies, demonstration projects and policy papers laid the basis for rapid change in agriculture once the crisis forced changes upon Cuba.

For Cuba, the end of cheap oil came in 1991 when the Soviet Union collapsed and its trade agreements with Cuba collapsed with it. Overnight, Cuba lost 80 percent of its oil imports. Cuba was thrown back into the world market, and the price of its exports fell dramatically. The U.S. tightened its trade embargo and Cuba had to come up with hard currency for all its imports.

Havana-harvest-112109-2-by-Scott-Braley-web, Havana harvest: Organic agriculture in Cuba’s capital, World News & Views This crisis, which Cuba calls the “special period,” hit the people hard. The food ration shrank; and although no one starved, people were hungry. People lost weight. Cubans began to suffer from diseases of malnutrition for the first time since the revolution.

Cuban society not only survived this crisis but actually used it as an opportunity to make major changes in how it raises food. Today tens of thousands of small gardens, ranging from patios and back yards to medium sized truck farms, produce more vegetables and tubers than before the crisis, using organic methods and manual labor.

One immediate way people confronted the food crisis was by starting to grow food in their own back yards, in vacant lots, even on their balconies. State institutions did the same. Catherine Murphy, researcher for Food First, writes: “The Ministry of Agriculture (MINAG) tore up the front lawn at their modern headquarters in Havana, and planted lettuce, bananas and beans. Many employees that regularly worked behind desks began watering and weeding to ensure a steady food supply for the ministry’s lunchroom.”

Alamar – people’s farm in Havana’s suburbs

Havana-harvest-110909-1-by-Scott-Braley-web, Havana harvest: Organic agriculture in Cuba’s capital, World News & Views One of those Ministry of Agriculture bureaucrats was Miguel Salcines Lopez, who came out from behind his desk to learn to be a real farmer. Today he is president of the Alamar Food co-op in Havana’s eastern suburbs, which he helped establish in 1998 on land that had been used to dump building materials.

After the density of central Havana, turning into Alamar is a relief: long straight rows of greens, ranging from the nearly yellow green of lettuce through the gray green of the cabbage family to the deep red greens of beet tops, like a striped afghan against the red soil.

The central part of the co-op is built out of recycled materials: wood, tin roofing, one building with windows that clearly came from a bus, hand painted signs.

Alamar has 160 members, 42 of them women, 63 seniors over the age of 60, two Ph.Ds. They farm on 10 hectares (a hectare is 2.6 acres) and produce 80 tons of food per acre with as many as five rotations a year of some crops. The co-op receives credits and services from the government, contracts to deliver crops for schools, hospitals and the food ration that every Cuban gets – people tell us it’s about half a month’s worth of food – and sells the surplus.

Profit is divided among the members according to a formula that allocates shares based on seniority as well as hours worked. Their average wage is 950 pesos per month (about $40 US), about three times the average Cuban wage. The seniors also have a pension, and the co-op provides not only breakfast and lunch but interest-free loans, work clothes, detergent, hair cuts and beauty parlor services.

Havana-harvest-112409-4-by-Scott-Braley-web, Havana harvest: Organic agriculture in Cuba’s capital, World News & Views Cuba’s soil is not naturally high in nutrition for plants, so Alamar, like most of Cuba’s gardens and farms, nourishes the soil with worm castings. The worms eat garden scraps as well as manure from Alamar’s animals, supplemented by manure from neighboring farms. In turn, they provide worm compost for smaller gardens and the storefronts that serve individual gardeners.

Unlike the smaller co-ops in the city itself, Alamar has domestic animals, even a pair of oxen that they use to bring new areas under cultivation. Most but not all of its crops are grown in the raised beds that are standard for Cuban organic agriculture and, except for the oxen, all the labor is done by hand.

Farming in the city

“Del cantero a la mesa: from the garden bed to the table,” says the banner outside the urban garden at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue in Havana’s Playa district. People are lined up at the counter to buy today’s harvest: lettuce, spinach, bok choy, garlic chives.

Havana has almost 10,000 gardens, ranging from back yards to truck farms like Alamar. The 44th Street organoponico (the official term for the organic gardens in raised beds), founded in 1992, takes up half a city block on what used to be a dumping place. Its 48 raised concrete beds are filled with a planting mixture made of soil brought in from farther out in the country, mixed with worm compost from a bigger garden near them. They start the plants in three shade houses, harvest a bed all at once and set out new plants the same day.

They grow sorghum around the edges of the whole garden as a trap plant; the bugs like sorghum and munch on it instead of the leaf vegetables. Garden director Roberto Perez Sanchez says that the sorghum “keeps the insects entertained.” Basil and marigold bloom at the foot of every bed to ward off more insects; and onions or garlic planted close together as a border inside each bed is a third line of defense.

This planting method gets results: They harvest half a dozen crops a year on average. Some plants like spinach go from garden to table in as little as 15 days. And the leaf crops are organically grown – beautiful, succulent, unblemished.

They also raise medicinal herbs – aloe vera, chamomile, lime, marjoram, two kinds of mint, and chicory. A sign at the counter from the macrobiotic researchers at Havana’s world-famous Finlay Institute explains the health benefits of chicory: “a friend of the liver.”

The garden co-operative has eight members: three in production, three in sales, a biological specialist that makes trichoderma (a biological control for nematodes) and director Perez, who is the agronomist and administrator. They contract part of the crop to the government to redistribute to schools, hospitals and workplaces to supplement what these institutions grow on site. They sell the rest directly: 80 percent of the profit goes to the workers, 15 percent to the state and 5 percent is saved as a capital reserve.

Agricultural extension Havana style

Havana-downtown-from-Morro-Fort-112509-4-by-Scott-Braley-web, Havana harvest: Organic agriculture in Cuba’s capital, World News & Views The consultorio at Seventh Avenue and 60th Street is full of customers, buying seeds and worm compost, consulting with specialists Odalys Bello Barrera and Magaly Vines Diaz. These state stores support Havana’s backyard gardeners. A leaflet series called “ABC of the Producer” explains planting, soil, worm culture, the use of biological controls for pests.

The consultorio conducts workshops for institutions planning an autoconsumo (garden at an institution to feed its members) and consults with individual backyard gardeners, helping them plan their plots. They diagnose pest damage and recommend remedies. Although a state agency, they are self-financed and share half the net proceeds, often as much as five times the average Cuban wage.

What makes it work?

Of course there are challenges: convincing more people to see farming as an honored and well-paid job, training new farmers, allotting and preparing more farm land, encouraging more people to grow food in their back yards or on their patios.

But farming in Havana works. It fills an important social need and has government and social support. By Cuban standards it is well paid. It’s a place where workers have collective control over their work, influenced by consumer demand, community needs and government direction. And it’s not opposed by developers or corporations who want to make a profit from the land.

What Cuba can teach us about changing from gigantic pesticide- and fertilizer-heavy monoculture to urban agriculture and sustainable farming points the way to sustainability for people all over the world.

Urban farmers in the United States face different opportunities and different challenges. On the one hand, community activists from Oakland to Detroit are organizing urban farms as part of a strategy of environmental justice and community empowerment, and it will be a topic at the U.S. Social Forum in Detroit in late June as activists converge under the slogan, “Another world is possible; another U.S. is necessary.”

And on the other hand, Fortune magazine in January featured an article on a Detroit financier who smells money in urban agriculture and is thinking of investing tens of millions of dollars in a land grab to run for-profit urban farms on Detroit’s vacant land. Whether urban farming is a resource for profit or community power depends on what we are able to make happen in the next while.

Scott Braley is an Oakland-based photographer who works for educational, non-profit and social justice organizations. Mickey Ellinger is an Oakland-based freelance journalist. You can see more Cuba pictures and other examples of their work on their websites, www.scottbraley.com and www.mickeyellinger.com.