Farms in Cuba start with a great advantage, the island’s fertile red soil. But after that, things get tough.
Cuban farms are notoriously inefficient because of a lack of reliable machinery, chemicals, fuel and other necessary materials for a modern operation.
On my trip to Cuba last fall, it took time to realize what I was missing: the sound of engines.
On a visit to a farming cooperative outside of Havana, oxen pulled plows, workers used hand implements and a man stripped tree limbs by yanking them through a cutting device.
Briefly, one worker used a chain saw to trim wood; that was the only power machine I saw.
The Recursos Humanos office was a rusted-out trailer hauled to the shade. Other structures were assembled from wood scraps and roofed with thatch.
To call this primitive, however, would be wrong and a misreading of Cuban innovations in the face of shortages. When Cuba’s economy tanked after losing Soviet patronage, farmers went organic.
To better manage water, they put in systems with micro emitters.
To stay current with research, they get briefings from Cuba’s science and agriculture. (Cuba’s equivalent of Good Fruit Grower is Ciencias Tecnicas Agropecuarias, published four times a year for 300 readers.)
How farming works in Cuba bewilders a newcomer. According to an estimate of Cuba’s farm potential by Miguel Altieri, a professor at the University of California at Berkeley, Cuba has 6 million hectares of fairly level land and another million hectares of gently sloping land. (One hectare equals 2.47 acres.)
More than half of that land remains uncultivated. The rest is managed by individuals (about 25 percent) and by cooperatives (about 42 percent). Some peasant farmers own and manage land deeded to them in 1959 when President Fidel Castro broke up large private plantations.
Some individuals who own land outright put their farms into cooperatives. Others lease land from the government under limited terms that make it difficult for any long-term decisions. “Ownership” is an elusive concept.
Cuba’s farms are not efficient. They grow only about 40 percent of the food needed for the island’s 11 million people. Improving agricultural productivity is an explicit goal of the Cuban government as it “updates” the national socialist model.
Despite this effort, farm output has barely risen since 2008, when President Raul Castro formally took over for his brother Fidel.
Production of rice and beans, the staples of a Cuban diet, declined between 2008 and 2015. Despite growing demand for food in part tied to increased tourism in Cuba, the Communist Party last April dialed back some agricultural reforms, Reuters reported.
Delegates voted to eliminate licenses for private wholesale food distribution and increased the scope of price controls on food from 51 percent to 80 to 90 percent.
Against this backdrop of acute need and modest success, our tour last fall brought us to a 25-acre cooperative farm near Havana, where we met Miguel Angel Salcines Lopez, presidente Coopererativa UBPC Organoponico Vivero Alamar.
The farm served as a regular stop for tourists, some of whom left gifts for the workers. I spotted one worker wearing a Harvard baseball cap and a Rainier Beach T-shirt from Seattle.
Lopez oversees the growing of broccoli, cauliflower, lettuce, beets, tomatoes, onions and other food crops sold mainly to markets, hotels and nearby residents. Dressed in a bush hat and safari shirt, Lopez joked that he had to keep prices reasonable or his neighbors would kill him.
Like other Cubans, Lopez spoke of the U.S. “blockade” as an ongoing problem.
He can’t get supplies. He has trouble finding valves, seeds, chemicals, equipment and emitters for his irrigation systems. He borrows growing ideas from the U.S., China and elsewhere.
He once visited California for a conference on organic growing; during that trip, he could only envy the multitude of goods he saw at Home Depot.
The life of the Cuban farmer is to scrounge and make do with less. And yet Cuban pride, resiliency and spirit came through as he spoke of life on the farm.
At age 66, Lopez certainly knows hardship, and like all Cubans he can only imagine what change might come from fully liberalized trade with the U.S. But for him, life remains a source of amusements that he can’t resist sharing.
Asked about his work force, Lopez said 40 of his 120 employees were women. “Women are more intelligent and reliable than men,” he said through a translator. He paused and grinned. •
– by O. Casey Corr