An example of an urban farm in Kibera, Kenya. (Photo credit: Bernard Pollack)
By Fred Bahnson
After a few shots of freshly squeezed sugarcane juice, we follow Miguel Salcines Lopez into the fields of what is the most stunning urban farm I have ever seen: Vivero Alamar in Havana, Cuba. The produce list is long: guavas, mangos, sugar cane, noni, figs, papaya, grapes, avocadoes, and citrus, not to mention dozens of vegetable and medicinal crops.
But it’s not just the overall agricultural diversity that is amazing to behold; it’s the diversity found in each field, plot, and bed, a mix that turns out to be a key to this farm’s success.
I ask Miguel how he and his 163 co-workers grow such healthy, blemish-free organic produce on their 11 hectares in the tropics. One trick is to plant in color bands, Miguel says. Insects orient themselves by color. In a natural forest, the mix of colors prevents insects from destroying any one species, so the farmers here mimic the forest in their planting patterns. Rather than plant a whole area in lettuce they plant one of their raised beds in lettuce, another in broccoli, the next in carrots, and so on.
Miguel described other insect controls: nearly every one of the hundreds of raised beds, elevated for better drainage, has chives or bunching onions growing along the outside border, plus marigold and basil on the ends. Such inter-planting goes a long way toward deterring harmful insects. For the really nasty critters, the farmers have an arsenal of pesticide “teas” made from neem tree oil or tobacco, both of which grow on site. They also inoculate each plant with mycorrhizal fungi. These fungi form a symbiotic relationship with the plant’s roots, helping it fend off insects and disease as well as improving nutrient uptake by 40 percent.
Plant health is first and foremost a function of soil health. A healthy plant grown in healthy soil will be much better positioned to resist insect damage, disease, and drought. “Feed the soil not the crop” is Miguel’s philosophy, and next he shows us what his soil eats: worm compost.
In the vermiculture area, he points to 10 concrete beds, each 4 feet wide and 60 feet long. Vermiculture is the art of using worms to turn organic matter into natural fertilizer. Worms will ingest manure, kitchen scraps, chopped-up crop residues—almost any form of organic matter except oils and citrus rinds—and excrete the remains as “castings.” Worm castings are rich in plant nutrients and also aid plants in disease and pest resistance. Miguel digs under the black soil and pulls out a writhing mass of California redworms. It takes 70 days to make a batch of worm compost. One square meter produces 1,000 pounds of compost per year, which is 10 times more productive than if the parent material were composted without worms.
The feedstock is cow manure—a waste product at the dairy farm down the road, but a valuable resource here at Vivero Alamar. “To dominate in organic agriculture, you have to be a shit specialist,” Miguel grins. “That’s what drives it all.” But, he warns, it takes a trained person to know how to make good worm compost. “You can’t just dump a load of shit down and throw three worms on top. You must have discipline.”
An agronomist by training, Miguel was once a mid-level functionary in Cuba’s conventional agricultural system. “I just sat at a desk pushing papers. I hated it.” When Cuba lost it agricultural inputs from the Soviet Union, his training was of little use to him or any other Cuban. Having seen how useless “the revolution of Monsanto” is when confronted by Peak Oil, Miguel will never go back to using oil-based pesticides and fertilizers. “The Green Revolution is an agriculture of recipes,” Miguel said. “You don’t need to know much about farming other than what fertilizers to apply and which pesticide to use.”
Agro-ecological farming, however, requires the farmer to be knowledgeable in climate, weather patterns, soil types, and plant needs. “It’s a much more complicated form of agriculture,” Miguel concludes. “It needs people who not only have an education but have passion. Agriculture of the 21st century will not be the same as the 20th century. We have to work more intelligently, not harder.”
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.