SUCCESS STORY: Urban farming thrives in Cuba (part two)

Posted: 11 April 2007

Author: Jason Mark

In the first of two articles Jason Mark told how a combination of necessity and government support saw organic urban agriculture take off in Cuba. Here he explains just how the system works and brings the story up to date.

Like many small, poor countries, Cuba remains reliant on exported agriculture to earn hard currency. The island is a robust exporter of tobacco, sugar, coffee, and citrus, and is selling a significant amount of the last three products as organically certified. Foreign investment in such ventures is on the rise.

But when it comes to sustainable agriculture, Cuba's most impressive innovation is its network of urban farms and gardens. There are, according to the country's Ministry of Agriculture, some 150,000 acres of land being cultivated in urban and suburban settings. That represents thousands of community farms, ranging from modest courtyards to production sites that fill entire city blocks.

These urban farms and gardens - organoponicos, as they are called in Spanish - offer an inspiring example of community organizing and empowerment. An unusual mix of private initiative and public investment, the organoponicos show how a combination of grassroots effort and official support can result in sweeping change. They illustrate, in a very real and tangible way, how neighbors can come together to fulfill that most basic of needs - feeding ourselves.

When the food crisis hit, the organoponicos were an ad hoc response by local communities to increase the amount of available food. No government official from on high had to tell the people that they needed more to eat. But as the potency of the community farming movement became obvious, the Cuban government stepped in to provide key infrastructure support and to assist with information dissemination and skills sharing.

At most organoponicos, the government provides the community farmers with the land and the water. The gardens can buy from the government key materials such as organic composts, seeds, and irrigation parts.

Especially important in an organic system, the government sells "biocontrols" such as beneficial insects (predatory bugs like lacewings that eat pests such as aphids); bacterial agents that help keep plant diseases in check; and plant based oils (such as Neem oil) that work as pesticides. These biological pest and disease controls are produced in some 200 government centers, deliberately small-scale and spread out to increase access to local farms and decrease the need for transportation and fuel use.

What the people provide is the labour. Since most of the organoponicos are built on land unsuitable for cultivation, they rely on raised planter beds to grow their crops - planter beds that require a lot of muscle power to complete. No matter what city or town you find them in, the organoponicos have a signature look: 4-feet-wide by 2.5-feetdeep white-washed planter beds dominate the scene. The length depends on the size of the lot. Some beds are 10 feet-long. Others are closer to 300-feetlong: A football field-sized vegetable garden in the middle of a city.

No boss in sight

Once the organoponicos are laid out, the work remains labour-intensive. All of the planting and weeding is done by hand, as is the harvesting. Soil fertility is maintained through a complex system of worm composting. The farms feed their excess biomass, along with manure from nearby rural farms, to worms that then produce a nutrient rich fertilizer. Crews spread about two pounds of compost per square yard on the bed tops before each new planting.

Despite the tropical heat, it doesn't look like drudgery. Among organoponico employees, there is a palpable pride in their creation. The atmosphere is cooperative and congeniaL There is no boss in sight, and each person seems to understand well their role and what's expected of them. The work occurs fluidly, with a quiet grace.

"We have all kinds of gardeners - artists, doctors, teachers," said Fernando Morel, president of the Cuban Association of Agronomists. "It's amazing. When we had more resources in the '80s, oil and everything, the system was less efficient than it is today."

Indeed, the hybrid public-private partnership appears to work well. In return for providing the land, the government receives a portion of the produce - usually about one-fifth of the harvest -- to use at state-run daycare centers, schools, and hospitals. The workers get to keep the rest to sell at produce stands located right at the farm. It seems a more-than-fair trade.

Progress you can eat

By statistical measures, the Cuban experiment with urban agriculture is a success. The city of Havana, for example, produces enough food for each resident to receive a daily serving of 280 grams (9.88 ounces) of fruits and vegetables. The United Nations Food Program recommends 305 grams (10.76 ounces) of fruits and vegetables a day. There are few other cities in the world that could say as much.

But, beyond the government press releases and brochure-friendly images of gardens next to highways, does it really work for ordinary Cubans? The answer is yes, at least as measured by the good cheer of the farmers and the gratitude of the shoppers.

Joe Kovach, an entomologist from Ohio State University who visited Cuba on a 2006 research delegation, sums up the situation: "In 25 years of working with farmers, these are the happiest, most optimistic, and best-paid farmers I have ever met."

The workers at the five-acre "Cellia Sanchez Manguley" organoponico in the provincial city of Sancti Spiritus prove the point.

"This is beautiful work," a woman named Aymara said as she harvested tomatoes. "It's great to be able to reclaim the production for ourselves."

"I like working here," said another worker, cigar clamped firmly in his teeth, as he helped with the tomatoes. "It's close to home. I can go home for lunch. And if I want to work a Saturday or a Sunday and then take off a Monday. I can."

The other proof is the lines of people that every day stretch past the organoponico produce stands. People are hungry for the local, fresh produce. Questioned about why they shop at the organoponicos, Cubans almost always give the same response: "Quality."

"It's good quality, it's good quantity, and it's good price," a woman shopping at the largest urban farm in the central city of Santa Clara told a foreign visitor. "It's fresh. Look, look at it. They're harvesting it right now." She points, and indeed they are. As each customer places an order at the farm stand, farm workers fulfill the request, a system that ensures against any waste. It's incredible: harvest-on-demand.

This is a stellar example of the kind of direct marketing that small farmers in the US hope to achieve through sales at local farmers' markets. By eliminating the middleman, the farmers get paid a higher price for their product. And by bringing the consumer closer to the point of production, people get healthier foods. It's local food production at its finest, and everybody wins.

Exporting revolution?

Of course, it's important to acknowledge that Cuba's green revolution as impressive as it may be - is not entirely replicable in other countries. After all, Cuba remains a state-dominated society with a high degree of social cohesion (or social control, depending upon your point of view). The question is whether a more liberal society without that kind of central command structure would be able to respond as effectively to a sudden breakdown in the food system.

Perhaps the answer can be glimpsed in the resilience of the experiment. For people in other countries, the lessons of the Cuban success come not through the details of the systems, (which are society- and site-specific) but via the average Cuban citizen's commitment to the ideal of local food production.

The case of bicycling in Havana helps make the case. During the "Special Period" bikes became a common sight throughout Cuba as the country grasped for fossil fuel-free transportation. Recently, however, Venezuela's ideologically sympathetic president, Hugo Chavez, has given some $2 billion a year in subsidized oil to Cuba. Not surprisingly, perhaps, most people in Havana have given up their bikes and returned to their cars. But while the bikes have disappeared, the urban farms and gardens have not. That's because they provide a direct source of jobs and food to the community. Nothing sharpens the attention quite like hunger.

Even as Cuba enjoys increased opportunities to return to a chemical based, long-distance food system, the country is sticking with its organoponicos.

Urban farmer Israel Hernandez says that he, for one, would not give up managing his half-acre organoponico. A wiry and intense old-timer, he has the leathery hands and wrinkled features of someone who has spent most of his years in the sun. When he talks about his garden - the work he does there with children, and how he provides vegetables to a local daycare centre - his pride is obvious. In his commitment to growing food for his neighborhood, one hears the persistence of nature, the yearning that we feel to be connected to the biological systems on which our very lives depend.

"I used to live in the mountains, and I fought in the mountains with the Revolution, and I worked on a dairy," Hernandez said "I became a history teacher, and later I worked for the government in the Interior Ministry. I was retired. I stopped working. And then I came back to run this garden. I love it, I love it. We have a saying here in Cuba: 'The wild animal returns to the wild.' ...I am that wild animal."

Jason Mark is working on his second book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, to be published in the autumn of 2007 by PoliPointPress. He co-manages San Francisco's Alemany Farm.

This is the second of two articles which first appeared in Earth Island Journal (Spring 2007).It is distributed by Third World Network Features.

Related links:

Urban farming thrives in Cuba - (part one)

Farming in the city - a growing imperative

Urban farming can help feed city millions