We were fortunate to take the trip of a lifetime this January. My dad came upon Food First and its Food Sovereignty Tour to Cuba early last year and was intrigued. After months of debate, we decided to go as a family. After all, the tour was in January – perfect for farmers! We couldn’t pay for it out of our farm earnings this year, but I got a generous scholarship from the Green City Market that helped.
Titled Cuba Organic: Revolution and Evolution, this tour focused on visits to organic farms. We got to talk with farmers, researchers, and agriculture officials about Cuba’s abrupt and urgent agricultural transition to sustainable, non-chemical, local-input growing after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1990.
Aboard a tour bus, we traveled almost the whole the length of the country in 12 days. We were among 12 tour participants from the United States, along with a Food First guide from the US, a Cuban guide, and a driver.
We visited 7 food-producing farms and at least as many community projects, including an exotic bird sanctuary, a botanic garden focused on ferns and orchids, and a community food preservation project. I came back inspired, with more than 1,300 photos and many pages of notes. Here are a few highlights:
One afternoon was spent working on an urban raised-bed vegetable farm, called an organopónico. Here, we transplanted chard and harvested tiny little round cucumbers. (My dad is the one bent over in the middle of the bed, wearing a white sun hat.)
Oxen and horses were widely used as draft animals on the farm, and we saw many horse carts and taxis used for transportation in the smaller cities. Knowledge about these animals had been all but lost in the country by 1990, but it was quickly re-learned and put to use when tractors, parts, and fuel became scarce.
Farmer Héctor Correa opened up his beehive so we could examine how these stingless tropical bees (not apis mellifera) build their hives – horizontally, as opposed to the vertical comb built by European honey bees.
Héctor and his wife Odalys were a particular inspiration to us because they focused on two main enterprises, mangoes and ceramics, but they also grew all their own food. They served us a meal that included not only their home-grown vegetables but also rice, pork, and coffee from their finca, or farm.
Of course, I sought out the grain and bean vendors at the agricultural markets we visited. This man was selling his corn whole, coarsely ground as cornmeal, and as fine masa harina. He also grew black beans and peanuts.
We visited both state-run and independent agricultural markets. The state-run market stalls offered a limited number of commodity crops (17 at one market, 21 at another) designated and subsidized by the government.
Prices were set by the state at those markets. At independent markets, there was much more variety, and prices were set by vendors.
These women were selling three kinds of beans. Prices at the markets were in the national currency, moneda nacional.
$1 (1 peso) in moneda nacional is about $.05 USD, so these black beans packaged in bags cost about fifty cents US – probably about 20 cents a pound.
Our most important take-home message was encapsulated on this sign at an urban farm called Organopónico El Ranchon:
It says, “Permaculture Design makes efficient use of: Time, Space, [and] Energy.” We vowed to use not just electrical energy, but also our own energy, more efficiently.
We call this one “Breslin Cuban Gothic.”