Urban agriculture born of necessity
Urban agriculture’s on the rise, organic’s the trend, and local food more frequently is what’s for dinner. We have comments from Thomas Marten and Kevin Green, who were on the recent Cuba market study tour.
Published: Jul 13, 2012
No, it’s not the western burbs or the Loop. It’s Havana, where abrupt sociopolitical change and economic necessity have forced Cubans to adopt a low-tech, yet innovative, style of food production.
“This type of agriculture is not the type of Monsanto,” jokes the president of UBPC Organoponico Vivero Alamar, one of a number of co-ops that have turned former housewives, teachers, laborers, and professionals into farmers and patches of sprawling Havana into green spaces that fuel government food stocks and neighborhood markets.
And while Cuba continues to chart low yields and high import numbers, the island’s metropolitan ag co-ops have generated a wealth of data that could benefit U.S. niche producer-marketers.
Miguel Angel Salcines Lopez, who founded his co-op 15 years ago, notes “we have impacted the economy.”
With “the Crisis” -- Cuba’s economic crash and subsequent reorganization following the demise of European communism in the ‘90s -- “to grow and sell food was a good business in Cuba,” he told participants of Illinois Farm Bureau’s recent Cuba market study tour.
Cuba has high hopes for low-tech ag, but Salcines stressed co-ops are not trying to create a “utopia” and recognizes the value of Midwest-style farming.
Cuban ag ministry global relations specialist Juan Jose Leon notes his nation’s poor corn yields (“We barely get 2 (metric) tons per hectare”), and supports the idea of “demonstration farms” where U.S. experts might “help us boost yields to five tons” -- if the U.S. can ease current limits on Cuban interaction.
“We’re all in favor of seeing the (Cuban) embargo lifted so we can help you with your agriculture and, in turn, you can help us with our agriculture,” Salcines told farmers.
Revolution, regression, and revival
With the 1959 Cuban revolution and the country’s shift to socialism, the U.S. ended relations with Cuba and the Soviet Union became both key supplier of ag inputs, fuel, and machinery and chief customer for Cuba’s staple sugar crop. Then, in 1991, Soviet support vanished.
Sugar had accounted for 80 percent of Cuban exports, and between loss of the USSR as a buyer, the closure of 60-some sugar mills, and fuel and parts shortages that hobbled transportation, “it was an economic disaster,” Salcines said.
Before the “crisis,” Cuba had seen major urban migration. Despite the subsequent breakup of state-owned farms into more productive co-ops and “reallocation” of some state lands into individual hands, “we couldn’t go back to manual agriculture” as a sole food source for Cuba’s millions, Salcines said.
“The alternative was to farm the land around the cities with the labor force that was available after the crisis,” he said. Because of a lack of inputs and urban public safety issues, the decision was made to rely on organic production, using natural fertilizers and biological pest controls.
The human factor
The Alamar co-op’s 26-acre, 160-member base represents diverse interests, specializing in vegetables but also producing fruit and ornamental plants. Members raise some livestock, including oxen for plowing and reproduction as well as rabbits and goats.
Ramon Garcia Hernandez, president of the 168-member Orlando Lopez Cooperative, notes challenges in bringing “new-type farmers” into even low-tech farming. “We’re quite a heterogenous group,” the former Havana educator noted. “Here, you can find a former military man or a retired professor.”
The classroom is an important ag training ground and computers are an integral tool in fostering member productivity. This season, co-op leaders have focused on fruit tree production, with an emphasis on grafting techniques that can reduce startup costs and installed a small nursery to explore the fundamentals of coffee production.
Orlando Lopez contracts much of its produce to the state for distribution to schools and hospitals, but excess stock can be sold in area “supply-and-demand” markets where prices can be negotiated. Further, individual members can decide whether to sell their own surplus products to the co-op or directly to local markets, Garcia said.
Because, as Salcines asserts, “almost no one would like to be a farmer” in Cuba, urban co-ops have tapped an older producer base. Nearly a third of his co-op’s members are older than 65; Garcia’s members average in the 45-50 range.
Women also are a key component in co-op success -- Salcines argues they are “better administrators” than their male counterparts. While Garcia encourages his co-op’s children to attend public school, they can voluntarily train at the base farm as potential family “replacements.”
Orlando Lopez helps each member household devise an annual “farmer development plan” outlining seed needs, prospective pest and disease control and fertilization strategies, and even marketing issues. It also is working to help members obtain crucial credit: Today, an urban “farmer” must have two co-signers and be endorsed by his or her co-op.
“The co-operative system reminds me of a lot of what we’ve done in the United States,” Market study tour participant David Serven concluded. “They have a board made up of the best farmers in the co-op and a managing director. That works on the same principles as some of our co-ops.
“I was also interested by some of the programs they’ve started to try to educate their youth about agriculture. Here in Illinois, the average age of the farmer is well into the 50s. They have the same problem.”
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