Our Man in Havana: Sustainable Agriculture Thrives in Cuba

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By Fred Bahnson

Miguel Salcines Lopez (photo: Fred

Miguel Salcines Lopez (photo: Fred Bahnson)

Miguel Salcines Lopez is a farmer of the 21st century. With a stylish jean jacket and rakish cowboy hat adorning his six-foot frame, Miguel looks more like a Cuban John Wayne than a stooped, tired farmer. That’s part of his game: he wants to make agriculture attractive, especially to the younger generation.

Miguel is the president of Organoponico Vivero Alamar, Havana’s largest and most successful organic garden. Actually, at 11 hectares, it’s more of an urban farm than a garden. Recently, I visited Vivero Alamar with several other Kellogg Food & Society fellows. “In the past,” Miguel told us, “agriculture in Cuba was demonized. People preferred to do anything but agriculture.” But today, Cuban farmers—especially urban farmers—have become respected members of society, some earning three times as much as doctors.

Why the sudden shift in cultural values and pay scale? I asked that question at each of the three Havana organic gardens I visited in mid-February. Mostly, the answers I heard contained exalted phrases like, “Organic agriculture is the privilege of the Cuban people,” which sounded to my Yanqui ears a bit like socialist propaganda. Cubans did seem proud of their organic gardens and had ample reason to be. But in my view, the country’s sudden shift to organic agriculture, and the accompanying shift toward more respect and better pay for farmers, can best be described in one word: necessity.

At one time, the Soviet Union was Cuba’s main trading partner, supplying the island with not only meat and grains but also fertilizer, pesticides, tractors, and oil—all the standard trappings of industrialized agriculture. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba was left scrambling to feed itself. Food disappeared from the shelves. Over the next three years, which Fidel Castro euphemistically dubbed “The Special Period in a Time of Peace,” the average Cuban lost 30 pounds. Cubans had to learn to grow food without all those inputs simply because they had to. Call it organic-by-default.

And judging by the success of places like Vivero Alamar, they’re doing an amazing job. The garden is a cooperative, which Miguel describes as a “private ownership model with socialist, egalitarian tendencies.” Of the 164 workers, 22 have university degrees, two of which are doctorates. Seventy percent of the profit is distributed among the workers, 20 percent goes to farm infrastructure, and 10 percent goes to the state. The vegetables and fruit grown at Vivero Alamar are sold six days a week to the people in the neighborhood, and the garden also has contracts with Havana hospitals, rest homes, and schools.

Miguel describes the benefits: working hours have been reduced to seven hours a day in summer and six hours a day in winter. There are coffee breaks and free lunches, and workers can take home 1.5 pounds of vegetables each day they work. Workers can also gather after work for a beer at the on-site cantina, and bring their families there on weekends. The garden is both workplace and community center. “We even have hairdressers and manicurists for our women workers,” Miguel said. Women hold prominent leadership roles. “We men get easily ruined by rum and cigars,” Miguel laughed. “Women are better workers.”

As you might gather, there is a waiting list to work here.

In 15 years, Cuba has become “the world’s largest working model of a semi-sustainable agriculture,” according to U.S. writer and activist Bill McKibben. At least in terms of vegetable and fruit production like the kind I witnessed at Vivero Alamar, Cuba is a model to emulate, demonstrating how an entire society can convert its agriculture to organic methods and thrive.

Granted, Cuba still imports between 76 and 85 percent of its food and is far from being food-secure. But in the city of Havana, nearly all of the vegetables and most fruit now come from within a 30-mile radius, an accomplishment of which few cities in the world can boast. Talking with Miguel, it’s also clear that whatever crisis led Cuba to organic farming in the first place, there are few backward glances.

Fred Bahnson is traveling as a Kellogg Food & Society fellow at the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. His writing has appeared in Orion, The Sun, and Best American Spiritual Writing 2007 (Mariner). He lives with his wife and two sons on a farm in Transylvania County, North Carolina.