While organic farming is growing across the U.S., the number of farmers in the Great Lakes using organic methods is still quite small – not so though in Cuba. In the past decade that island nation has embraced small-scale organic farming and urban gardens. Production of vegetables has soared, which has attracted attention from experts in the Great Lakes region who are visiting Cuba in increasing numbers. In the first of a two-part series, the Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky went along with one group to find out how the country transformed its agricultural practices:
While organic farming is growing across the U.S., the number of farmers in the
Great Lakes using organic methods is still quite small. Not so, though, in Cuba.
In the past decade that island nation has embraced small-scale organic farming and urban gardens. Production of vegetables has soared… which has attracted attention from
experts in the Great Lakes region who are visiting Cuba in increasing numbers. The
Great Lakes Radio Consortium’s Mary Stucky went along with one group to find out
what the Cubans can teach Midwest farmers about farming.
Cuban farmers had little choice about whether to embrace organic agriculture. Just seven
years ago, the Cuban people faced starvation, but today.
“For us, we are alive, we are alive.”
For Mavis Alvarez, and other Cubans, just having survived is an accomplishment.
When the Soviet Union collapsed, it had a ripple effect on Cuba as well. That’s because Cuba’s economy was based on financial assistance from the Soviet bloc, especially its food economy. And when that money stopped, Cuba’s citizens began to feel the effects. Before long, Cuba could no longer afford to import food, fertilizer or pesticides. So the government made a
drastic decision. Food would be grown without chemicals using alternative methods.
To many, it was seen as a major gamble…. but it worked.
(Natural sound from vegetable stand)
Vegetable stands in residential Havana display piles of lush vegetables at reasonable prices. While there are still severe shortages of meat and milk, the country is now producing four
times the vegetables compared to the worst year of the food crisis – and this is done largely without the use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides.
“I have so much respect for that and Cubans are evidently in the forefront.”
Diane Dodge is a master gardener from St. Paul, Minnesota. Among organic farmers, Cuba is
renowned – and many, like Dodge, are visiting the island to see Cuba’s methods with their own eyes.
“They’re not necessarily trying to change anything. What they’re trying to do is go with the
flow of nature and that’s very contrary to what we do. We’re always trying to manage nature, change nature and here it’s all of a piece.”
Cuba has combined organic farming methods including natural pest controls and
fertilizers… along with a vast new system of urban gardens like this one in Havana.
(Natural sound of windmill)
A windmill pumps water for this garden. Ten years ago this was a weed patch. Now it’s a lush
jungle of vegetables, spices and fruit… by law no chemicals can touch this soil. Through a translator gardener Ignacio Aguileras Garcias explains he feeds 10 family members from his plot.
“Here we have 43 farmers and maybe only 8 or ten sell the products. The rest use the products for their own consumption. You work on your piece of land and you do with your production whatever you want.”
Just a few short years ago many Cubans were starving. Nowadays most Cubans are eating well
enough to meet standards set by the United Nations. Some experts’ say that proves organic farming can feed a country’s people. Urban gardens produce more than half of the fruits and vegetables consumed in Cuba. Minor Sinclair lived in Cuba in the 1990’s. He represented Oxfam America, a charity working on food policy, and says it’s justified to use valuable urban land to grow food.
“You produce it locally, you get people involved in the production, you market it locally. You can go out and walk two blocks and buy a head of lettuce that’s been removed from the earth right there in front of your eyes. And that lettuce lasts a week in the refrigerator. Better product, cheaper prices and better income for the farmers too.”
So what those who came to visit the farms have found is that in ten short years Cuba has transformed its agriculture production… and that’s a good thing, says the Minnesota Department of Agriculture’s Wayne Monsen.
“You know they know how to feed themselves. I’m not sure Americans would know how to feed
ourselves if there was a crisis where the food supply stopped.”
But Cubans are looking beyond feeding themselves. In February, the first certified organic sugar
from Cuba was sold to European chocolate-makers. There’s a great demand in Europe for other
organic foods as well. If organics become a Cuban export bonanza, it would certainly get the
attention of farmers up north, in the Great Lakes.
For the Great Lakes Radio Consortium, I’m Mary Stucky.