Making a farm-to-farm connection in Cuba

Greensgrow Farms

This guest blog comes to us from our marketing and promotions intern, Kate Kelly. Kate is a recent Temple University alumn, and loves coming up with creative recipes for her Greensgrow CSA haul. Last month, she traveled to Cuba on a professional research trip, where she visited urban farms and participated in people-to-people cultural exchange. Below, she shares some of the things she learned and images she captured on her trip.

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For most of us in the United States, the mention of Cuba conjures up images of beret-clad rebels, Soviet missiles, and classic cars. Few associate Cuba with urban agriculture and innovations in organic farming. However, the little island 90 miles south of Key West, Florida, has dedicated itself to increasing its domestic and organic food production. When I told people I would be spending a week in Cuba, some congratulated me and some cringed. Most people just wanted to know how on earth I was going to get there. Despite an easing of tension between the U.S. and Cuba in the past few years, U.S. travel to Cuba is still restricted. I was able to apply for a professional research visa, and accompanied a group of lawyers going to study worker cooperatives. (Full disclosure: My mom, who helps start cooperative businesses in Texas, organized the trip.)

rowsUntil recently, most of the industry in Cuba was state-owned and operated, with the exception of worker-owned agricultural cooperatives, which have been allowed since the 1980s. This year, the Cuban government proposed a set of laws that would open up certain sectors for entrepreneurship. For example, a private citizen may now open their own restaurant or barber shop. Under the new guidelines, some state operations will be turned over to the employees to be run as cooperatives. Because the guidelines are so new, there are few non-agricultural cooperatives operating, which was disappointing to some in our research group. However, as an employee at an urban farm, I was delighted that the schedule was packed with visits to organopónicos, many of which resembled our own Greensgrow Farms.

Now, it is impossible to talk about these urban agricultural operations without talking about the United States’ embargo against Cuba. Indeed, it was impossible to visit these places without the people there talking to us about El Bloqueo, and the effect the embargo has on their livelihoods. For more than 50 years, the United States has refused to trade with Cuba and seeks to stop many of its allied countries from trading with Cuba. For example, under the Torricelli Act, ships that dock in a Cuban port are forbidden from docking in an American port for six months. These sanctions have prevented Cuba from establishing credit and trading normally in the global economy. As a result, they have not been able to acquire many elements of the mechanized, chemical agricultural operations that are prevalent in the U.S. and other developed countries. Here in the U.S., urban farms tout their use of integrated pest management and natural fertilizer and compost, offering conscious shoppers an alternative to the industrial agricultural system. In Cuba, circumstances have necessitated the development of these sustainable practices. Making do with very little, Cubans have embraced organic farming practices because they require fewer resources. Every organopónico we visited had sunflowers and marigolds (which distract and repel pests) planted near its vegetable rows. Each one had larger animals, such as bulls and massive pigs, for generating fertilizer, and a nuanced system for creating worm humus to fertilize and nourish their plants. Many farmers we met emphasized the importance of rotating crops frequently, up to six times a year, in order to maintain soil health and prevent pests from establishing themselves. One farm had an entire department devoted to breeding predatory insects to serve as natural pest management. Many farmers we met spoke of “closing the cycle,” or producing everything they need to operate on the farm itself, without bringing in outside materials. Though it takes years to achieve this level of self-sufficiency, it seems that this was a common goal among Cuban farmers. IMG_1218 At our meeting with the Cuban Association of Agriculture and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF), an elderly board member passionately described the increased sustainability of the Cuban model. Prefacing many of his statements with the emphatic phrase, “Óigame, les digo…” (“Listen, I’ll tell you…”), he sounded confident that Cuba would be able to significantly reduce its food imports, as well as its use of chemical fertilizers and pesticides, by supporting domestic growers through training, education of natural/sustainable farming methods, and popular education about urban gardening. In addition to providing small farmers with knowledge, technology, and seed varieties calibrated to their microenvironment, ACTAF empowers individuals to practice urban gardening in their apartments and houses. Indeed, the balconies of Havana were lush with ornamentals, herbs, and small veggie plants. In addition to their revolutionary (pun intended) use of natural pest management and their largely organic agricultural system, Cuban organopónicos have achieved a beneficial cooperative model that increases worker engagement and accountability. At one organopónico, the 187 cooperative members are expected to attend assembly or assemblea, where they vote on decisions and voice their concerns democratically. Profits were distributed among the workers, with the amount based on seniority, every 15 days. In accordance with Cuban law, female cooperative members are given one year for maternity leave. Women with children who need care or transportation to school in the mornings are allowed to come to work an hour late. One of the most striking aspects of the Cuban agricultural system is the prominence of women. In the organopónico mentioned above, 20% of the members and 30% of the board of directors were women. At another cooperative, the board of directors consisted of seven women and only one man. Coming from a country where agriculture is a male-dominated industry, it was encouraging for me to see how empowered female farmers are in Cuba. One week in Cuba was not enough to develop an understanding of the culture, economy, or politics. But my small taste of their country has left me wanting more. I mean that literally; Cuban food is delicious. We ate a lot of fresh seafood, as well flavorful, “dirty” rice with black beans. One especially delicious dish was called ropa vieja (“old clothes”), thinly shredded beef soaked in a tomato-based sauce. It really did look like the clothes bunched up messily in my suitcase! My favorite meal in Cuba was really more of an afternoon snack. On a visit to an organopónico, we arrived to find a beautiful and bountiful spread of the fruits grown there. After a presentation about the farm and the cooperative (given by the almost-all female board of directors), we were invited to eat the fruit. The pineapple and watermelon were some of the best I have had. I have never liked papaya (it tastes like dog’s breath) but I was persuaded to try it, and it was delicious. There was one fruit with a brown husk that, when cut open, resembled the color and texture of a cooked sweet potato. The cooperative members told us that this fruit grows elsewhere in the region, but that the ones grown in Cuba are “so delicious they will bring you to tears.” I did not cry when I tried it, but I was shocked to find that in addition to looking like a cooked sweet potato, it tasted just like one as well! It was hard to wrap our heads around some of the things we saw and learned, and it became a running joke among our group that everything in Cuba is opposite from the U.S. We marveled that a society so different from our own, so villainized in our political discourse, was actually rather normal and functional. It was truly inspiring that a small country with little means, working under trying circumstances, can achieve such beneficial, sustainable advancements. Sticky politics aside, the tenacity of Cuba and its people, their willingness to persevere in difficult times, certainly reminded me of Greensgrow. It was a trip I won’t soon forget.

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