Vermonters bring organic insights to farmers in Cuba

@$ID/[No paragraph style]:A Marshfield woman was one of three farmers with Vermont ties to travel to Cuba recently to help farmers there to learn more about organic agriculture and what resources they need to improve their productivity.

The three traveled to Cuba under the auspices of Winrock International, a nonprofit based in Arkansas that assists in economic and environmental development projects around the world. Each year, Winrock fields approximately 200 volunteers, who are usually mid-career, to help out farmers and local organizations.

Mimi Arnstein, former owner of the Wellspring Farm in Marshfield who now works in agricultural consulting, joined Putney farmer Howard Prussack and former Elmore farmer Charles Mitchell, who now lives in Canada, on the journey to Cuba from March 15-26. They visited over 20 farms, food cooperatives and other agricultural organizations on the Caribbean island nation.

Winrock’s director of Volunteer Technical Assistance, Deann McGrew, described the trip as a combination of assessing needs for the Cuban farmers and providing some technical assistance. She said she was already familiar with what Arnstein, Prussack, and Mitchell could bring to the task because of prior volunteer work they had done together.

A primary goal for the trip was to teach their Cuban hosts about organic certification, which for the most part does not exist there currently, according to McGrew.

Organic certification verifies a farm’s compliance with USDA organic regulations and allows farmers to sell, label, and represent their products as organic. There are Cuban farmers’ groups that want to explore organic certification further, according to McGrew, and the American delegation’s 12-day assignment in March was keyed to that interest.

Arnstein said she marveled at the Cuban farmers’ ability to produce food with very few agricultural inputs like seed, fertilizer, and mechanized equipment. “Here in Vermont we strive to reduce outside inputs, but we always have the option of buying what we need. In Cuba, farmers have to make do with what they have which promotes sustainable agriculture, innovation and sharing among producers,” she said.

Prussack said of the Cuban farmers, “They are not impoverished but they need more stuff,” noting that he saw very few tractors in Cuba and those that he did see were old Russian models. He said he saw also only one rototiller.

“They have limitations and we might be able to help them with some of that,” Prussack added.

One example he noticed to underscore how Cuban agriculture could benefit from some modernization was an invasive thorny weed that Cuban farms have been disposing of by hand. “They are going to need tractors and bulldozers to get rid of that,” said Prussack. Many Cubans also don’t have greenhouses, he said, or even machinery to make ice — a significant consideration given the country’s hot, tropical climate.

The American group traveled from Havana to the north coast and on to the western part of the country where they grow tobacco.

McGrew observed, “There’s limited access to chemical inputs in Cuba, so they’re essentially growing things organically already.” But further education about organic agriculture and organic certification is likely in the future, McGrew said, with a follow-up trip by some connected Vermont farmers in the not too distant future.

By Gina Conn, Rutland Herald

April 21, 2015

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