||Customers at a
bustling Havana farmers market. Most booths are managed
by intermediaries who are contracted directly by farmers to
market their products. Tomatoes displayed here for 5 pesos/pound
(around 20 cents/lb U.S.) are considered expensive.
I know that the world is weak
And must soon fall to the ground,
And, then, midst the quiet profound
The gentle brook will speak.
José Martí, 1891
Posted April 2, 2003: Our air-conditioned bus
was a haven of comfort, in a land where few of the “comforts
of home” as we know them exist. The well-cushioned seats reclined
to allow for an occasional and much needed nap along the route,
but instead I usually sat leaning forward, my attention riveted
out the window.
The contrasts of metropolitan Havana are difficult to describe
without pictures, many pictures really. Most residential buildings
remain in sorry shape, even as those structures more important for
drawing tourists (hotels, museums, historic landmarks, etc.) undergo
thorough restorations everywhere.
urban farmer extraordinaire: Below you'll find
more photos of America's extraordinary Havana farm operation.
There is much poverty in Cuba, for sure, but there are also signs
of promise that kept my eyes glued to the oncoming landscape outside
the bus. For amid the substantial ruins of a society that has faced
tremendous adversity, there is agriculture—agriculture everywhere—agriculture
that the high priests of corporate agribusiness have told us can
never be possible in our own country.
As part of what has been called the “largest ever fact-finding
delegation destined for Cuba,” I was joined by Penn State
IPM specialist and PASA board member Lyn Garling and Tim Bowser,
executive director of the FoodRoutes Network (www.foodroutes.org),
as part of a dynamic group of about ninety food and farming specialists
from all over the United States, Latin America, and the Caribbean
on a study tour of Cuban agriculture. The trip was organized by
the California-based Food First/Institute for Food and Development
and took place over a two-week period bridging February and March
of this year.
Why sustainable ag has become a guiding principle
To put it bluntly, I think most if not all of us on the trip were
stunned to find out how central the concept of sustainable agriculture
has become in Cuban society, and likely were equally stunned afterward
in returning to face the reality of our situation in this country.
It is worth noting, however, that not all of Cuba’s success
in this regard has been by design; historical consequence has played
a significant role.
Following the Revolution that was complete at the beginning of
1959, Cuba was pushed into a mostly exclusive trading relationship
with the Soviet Union and other socialist countries by the U.S.
trade embargo, now more than forty years old. Despite the embargo,
or “blockade,” as it is called in Cuba, this arrangement
worked pretty well for the growing Cuban economy for about thirty
years, until the collapse of the Soviet Union beginning in 1989.
Cuban exports during this period were mostly sugar, tobacco, and
nickel, which they traded for fuel, food, medicine, and the necessary
equipment and supplies to support large-scale conventional agriculture.
on-farm stand: "America's" curbside
farm stand, fashioned from an old railroad car. Note the
apartment building in the background -- food is produced
and marketed very close to where it will be consumed.
The seeds of agricultural change, however, were present throughout
the thirty years following the Revolution. We were reminded on the
trip that agrarian reform had always been a priority of the Cuban
socialist regime, and many of us were left with our jaws hanging
open to hear the story that in 1963, Fidel Castro attended graduation
ceremonies at the Universidad Agraria de la Habana (Agrarian University
of Havana) and personally handed each graduate a copy of a newly
published book called Silent Spring by Rachel Carson.
||"Cuban officials put it this way: ‘Sustainable
agriculture has become an integral part of our national defense
. . . a war of the people,’ and ‘Our soils are a
strategic natural resource.’ Now, how long will we wait
here in the U.S. before we hear such statements from our own
From the beginning, the Revolution had sought to guarantee adequate
food for every man, woman, and child in Cuba as a birthright, and
the desire had been to supply as much of this food as possible through
production using fewer chemicals on smaller farms or farm cooperatives
located close to where people actually live.
The large industrialized and foreign-owned farms that previously
exported for the profit of absentee corporate owners were nationalized,
and the priorities of production changed. Exports continued, but
were considered mostly a necessary evil to obtain the goods not
immediately available within the confines of this island nation.
But with the fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba was plunged into a
Ag in Cuba Defined
The following list of current initiatives
was presented to the Food First delegation by Luis García,
an agronomist who is Director of The Center for the Study
of Sustainable Agriculture at the Agrarian University of Havana.
Entitled “The Cuban Model for Sustainable Agriculture,”
the list reflects challenges facing Cuba’s farmers since
the beginning of the current economic crisis, but serves also
as a pretty good menu of priorities for sustainable farmers
• Organic fertilizers and biofertilizers
• Soil conservation and recuperation
• Animal traction and alternative energy
• Inter cropping and crop rotation
• Mixing crops and animal production
• Alternative mechanization
• Urban Agriculture and community participation
• Alternative Veterinary Medicine
Adjusting to local conditions
• Reversing rural migration to cities
• Increasing cooperative use of land
• Improving agrarian research
• Changing agrarian education
desperate food crisis almost overnight, which dramatically quickened
the pace of agricultural reform. The United States, perhaps sensing
an opportunity to bring about a new capitalist counterrevolution,
tightened the embargo with legislation in 1992 (Torricelli) and
again in 1996 (Helms-Burton), making things even worse for the Cuban
Throughout our travels, speaker after speaker emphasized with considerable
emotion the impact of the historical one-two punch of Soviet trade
evaporation and U.S. legislation, but somehow each person avoided
sounding bitter in retrospect. Instead, they expressed pride in
what they have achieved in the face of overwhelming circumstances.
Lacking the feed concentrates, fertilizers, pesticides, and other
chemicals that used to come through trade, the people of this society,
with the support of their government and universities, launched
a massive campaign to make widespread, diversified, and well-distributed
organic agriculture a reality. The results are amazing, if not yet
complete, and provide convincing testimony to the enduring power
of the revolutionary spirit still apparent in Cuban culture.
The rise of urban farming
One major strategy to ease the crisis was to implement urban agriculture,
with folks farming their backyards, or bringing new life to abandoned
lots or defunct manufacturing sites. Because of free-market incentives
established by the government in response to the crisis, there is
now enough organic produce grown within the city limits of Havana
to feed each of the city’s 2.5 million residents a minimum
of 300 grams (about 10 ounces) of fruits and vegetables each day.
trained oxen replace tractors: A helper at "Chucho's"
farm deals with a problem familiar to all produce farmers
... lettuce that has bolted. Though works horses are somewhat
rare in Cuba, the country now has nearly half a million
trained oxen, which provide power in place of the fuel-hungry
tractors of the past.
Some of the urban farmers we met had left very stable professional
careers to engage in agriculture for the first time. For instance,
we met “Chucho,” a former veterinarian who had originally
switched to farming in order to keep his children fed. As he put
it, “When we realized we only had one egg per day to split
between two kids, we decided to make the change before it was too
late.” He and his wife, a former chemist, now operate two
farms, making considerably more money than they did in their former
Another strategy has been to divide the large, state-owned farms
into smaller cooperatives, or Basic Units of Cooperative Production
(UBPC), as they are called. Our group visited one that employed
fifty-five farmers farming a total of about eight acres, with each
of the farmers earning approximately four times the national average
monthly wage. They achieve this despite the fact that such farms
must first provide, as part of their social obligation, food for
local schools, hospitals, and nursing homes before selling on the
The key to the success of urban agriculture in Cuba is that the
farms are located in the same neighborhoods as their customers.
For instance, another farmer we met, named “America,”
grows on a lot adjacent to her house with help from her neighbors.
After meeting her social obligation, she sells produce from a refurbished
railroad car that now serves as a curbside farm stand. Such stands
in and around Havana often attract hundreds, and even thousands
of customers each day.
Part of "America's" urban farm in Havana, with
raised beds and a modern irrigation system provided by
the Cuban government. Individual farms like this usually
operate through a cooperative and, after providing fresh
food for local schools and hospitals, are able to sell
at curbside stands.
Another key has been the reinvention and rejuvenation of university
Extension services. Throughout the country, extensionists, as they
are called, adhere strictly to a model of “popular education”
that is described as “emancipatory” in nature. By this
model, the teacher is never considered more important than students,
but both learn and share in the process together.
The principle goal of Extension services in Cuba is to integrate
new technology in support of traditional production systems. Farmers
are thought to be the best judge of what to produce and how it should
be done. As one extenstionist put it, “What the farmer would
not eat, the farmer should not grow.”
Success in achieving sustainability of Cuban livestock production
lags behind that achieved with vegetables and fruit. It is impressive,
though, that pork and poultry production, now occurring in more
diversified systems on small farms, have reached levels that existed
before the crisis, when most all animals were raised in conventional
confinement facilities. And university research conducted in Cuba,
using sustainability indicators they have developed, has concluded
that a 20-cow dairy provides the maximum level of efficiency.
The innovative spirit is alive and well in Cuba
prejudice: A Cuban fruit farmer and his wife,
who hosted a group from the delegation for a visit at
their home. Everywhere it was clear how proud these folks
are of what they had achieved, and how glad they were
to receive us. Departing comments were often mingled with
Throughout the tour, on every stop and around every corner, we
found evidence of an innovative spirit that was reminiscent of many
sustainably run operations in Pennsylvania and elsewhere in the
United States. But in contrast to the common attitude in our own
homeland, the success of such innovation is seen by Cubans as critical
to the future security of their country.
As an example, and in light of the crisis faced since 1989, two
different Cuban officials made the following comments: “Sustainable
agriculture has become an integral part of our national defense
. . . a ‘war’ of the people,” and “Our soils
are a strategic natural resource.” These are the words of
leaders who knew keenly that mass starvation might very well be
The Cuban farmers we met along the way beamed withpride as they
told of what they had achieved against overwhelming odds. Starting
with the aim to feed their own families, they now feed their communities
and, for the most part, their society.
Few, if any advocates for sustainable agriculture in our own country
would wish to swap our government or economic circumstances with
those found in Cuba. But it sure doesn’t hurt to see an example
of how we might utilize the principles of sustainability in the
United States to avoid our own Special Period in the future.
Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance,
edited by Fernando Funes, Luis Garcia, Martin Bourgue,
Nilda Perez and Peter Rosset, published in English by
Food First Books, 2002. Available from Amazon.com.
The Greening of Cuba, a Food First
video directed by Jaime Kibben. Order from LPC Group
at 1-800-343-4499, or visit the book store on the Food
First site (www.foodfirst.org).
vs. Extensive Agriculture
Of the many interesting perspectives
gained from listening to farmers and other agricultural
specialists in Cuba, one of the most intriguing was
the concept of “extensive agriculture.”
Cubans use the term “intensive”
to describe industrialized systems of agriculture that
are very familiar to us in the United States, like confined
livestock feeding operations and mono-cultural cropping
practices that depend heavily on chemical inputs.
But in describing the alternative,
Cubans talk about “extensive” systems that
consist of vast networks of sustainably run, smaller
plots of ground that emphasize cooperative labor, local
marketing, farm-based enterprises and a farm’s
inherent responsibility to the social fabric of its
In contrast to intensive agriculture,
extensive agriculture represents an altogether different
philosophical orientation. Cubans use the word “extensive”
to emphasize how big their plans for establishing sustainable
food and farming systems really are.
Brian Snyder is the Executive Director of the Pennsylvania
Association for Sustainable Agriculture (PASA). If any person or
group is interested in hosting a more detailed presentation, including
slides, of PASA’s participation in the Food First delegation
to Cuba, please contact Brian directly at email@example.com.