Mar 7, 2016
Necessity forces Cuban growers to improvise, innovate

It is always nice to see new ways of doing things – whether it is a novel cultivator, a new farm management system or an entirely different way to govern a country and order society. The inquiring mind learns something from comparisons of all sorts.

Over the holidays, I was fortunate to travel with my family to Cuba, our mysterious but increasingly accessible neighbor. You may know from previous articles that I do a lot of traveling with my brother, Joel. His language skills, agricultural inquisitiveness and love of fun and adventure make him an ideal companion. We visited three urban vegetable farms in Cuba, along with one in the country. These urban gardens were quite different from what we have here in the states, and in this and the next postcard I’d like to share what Joel and I learned.

First a little context: Cuba’s agriculture used to be similar to our dominant paradigm – chemical inputs, heavy tillage, highly mechanized and large scale with food production away from the cities. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba’s economy took a nosedive, and the price of imports such as machinery, fertilizer and fuel shot way up.

A garden in Santa Clara uses a diamond pattern with narrow walkways to maximize growing space yet still allow space for a wheelbarrow to turn around in the middle of the row. Photos: Sam Hitchcock Tillotson


Concomitant with the lack of agricultural inputs was a lack of agricultural outputs: namely food. Caloric intake in the country plummeted, and people were starving. In this situation, folks began growing food and raising animals anywhere they could – cucumbers on balconies and pigs in bathtubs. People would sell their surplus food for much-needed money, and some started commercial gardens in vacant lots. At first such private enterprises were illegal, but they continued because people wanted to eat. The government realized that low-input, local horticulture was an effective and cheap way to produce food, and so over the course of the last 20 years, the state has come to support and encourage urban food production. Today, private-enterprise produce is flourishing, and one need no longer buy a tomato furtively, late at night, on the street corner.

Picture 3.
An electric pump moves water from the concrete cistern underground up into the water tower. Black lines of irrigation tube run along the beds with small spray nozzles every few feet that mist.

Small urban farms are called Organoponicos, and we found that they function far differently than any of our urban or rural farms. The three we visited were in residential neighborhoods in cities of 300,000, 200,000 and 80,000 citizens. We would be walking down the street in the midst of houses, horse-carts and businesses, when the façade of concrete buildings would part to reveal a parcel of green behind a metal fence. These gardens (or farms?) all had a small building with a storefront facing the street from which, like any normal store, they sold their produce. Behind the counter lay the “fields” and the working farmers (which made it easy for us to meet them).

These farms varied in size, from a half acre to 2 acres. All growing was done in concrete raised beds, 1 foot high and 4 feet wide. I asked one farmer why he grew in raised beds, expecting an exposition on soil fertility and drainage, but the 50-year old factory worker-turned-gardener replied, “It is so I don’t have to bend down to far.”

Some things are not complicated. We saw ingenious bed shapes that maximized space but still allowed a wheelbarrow to turn around between the beds.

Picture 4
This two-acre urban garden in Camaguey plants yellow insect-repelling marigold flowers at the head of the beds.

Crops were planted very intensively. I remarked on the rows of head lettuce that looked to be planted too tightly. The grower responded that because they have no palliative sprays, they harvest crops as young as they can to lessen the time they are susceptible to maladies. Farms universally used drip irrigation lines with tiny spray heads, which are pressured from a water tower filled by an electric pump from an in-ground cistern.

Most farms utilized multifaceted organic growing methods. Every vegetable bed I saw had either Cuban oregano or marigold at the head to keep insects away, and intercropping was common. One farmer made sprays out of his herbs to repel different insects. Three out of four growers were enthusiastic vermicomposters, and swore by the long-lasting effects of their worm castings.

The concrete trough in the middle of the pathway is filled with lime, acting as a low-tech sanitation system on this farm outside of Havana.

Our experience was that the majority of growers used organic methods for a few reasons: it is cheaper, the state supports it and they believe in the health benefits. Cuba is certainly not an organic paradise, as one of the three gardens we visited sprayed herbicides, pesticides and used urea pellets for fertility. All farms were very concerned with sanitation and not introducing pathogens to their plots. One had a pit in the walkway just past the entrance to be filled with limestone, so that visitors would automatically walk through the limestone and disinfect their shoes.

These urban farms are dense, and there are many of them in each city. One farmer in Santa Clara, a city of 200,000, told us that there were eight other farms in his neighborhood, and we found another one just a block away. One of the results of this density of farmers is that they can organize. The growers have a union that represents their interests to the Cuban government, and resolves employment disputes by means of a committee of farmers. They also fill a hall from time to time for pork and rum dinners (a practice I am eager to introduce to my colleagues).

Read part two of Sam’s trip to Cuba in the April issue.

Sam Hitchcock Tilton

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