Food and Urban Gardening in Cuba: Travel course offered with Gardener’s Supply Founder

A decade ago I went to Cuba to explore their urban farming and “organiponico” movement.  These innovations are part of Cuba’s “second revolution” involving a forced transformation of their food system from an industrial and chemical focus to a local and organic focus, mandated almost overnight by the collapse of the Soviet Union.

Below is the article I wrote about that trip in 2014.  In 2015 I plan to return to Cuba offering a course through Burlington College to update the food system experiment in Costa Rica and compare it to food system innovations happening in Vermont that I have been involved with for over 30 years.

Check this out if you or others you may know would like to join this course Feb 27-March 8, 2015 : https://www.burlington.edu/content/cuba-sustainable.  Or, contact me at willr@gardeners.com.

Cuba’s Second Revolution

by Will Raap

 

For several years I have been hearing about another revolution in Cuba. This time it involved farming and the food system. For much of the 1990s, small organic farms were providing increasing amounts of Cuba’s food. They were responding to the economic emergency of 1989–90 when the Soviet bloc began collapsing and Cuba lost its main source of foreign exchange and half of the food its 11 million citizens relied on.

During the early 1990s imports of agricultural machinery, fertilizer, pesticides and other needed inputs for Cuba’s industrialized agricultural system (producing mostly sugar for export) stopped abruptly. Cuban agriculture had to change or the people would starve. And change needed to happen fast.

Fertilizers, pesticides, equipment and other farm inputs needed to come from local sources and harvests had to feed Cubans, not sweeten desserts in East Germany. It was like corporate farms in California or Iowa suddenly having to switch from chemically dependent monocultures feeding Manhattan to compost-fed, diversified crops feeding Fresno or Dubuque. Then, in 1999, I read an article in The New Internationalist about a surprising additional innovation in this latest Cuban revolution: Organiponico. 

Organiponicos are organic farms and gardens of a few thousand square feet to several acres located in urban areas. Vacant lots, old parking lots, abandoned building sites, spaces between roads, any available site (even rooftops and balconies) were taken over by thousands of new urban farmers trying to feed themselves and make some money.

In Havana alone, 30,000 residents tend 8,000 community gardens and small farms producing vegetables, fruit, eggs, medicinal plants, honey, and such livestock as rabbits and poultry. These urban farmers produce 30% of the city’s vegetables and perishable food. All this produce is organic; chemical pesticides for agriculture are not allowed within the city limits. 

Outside of Havana the Organiponico movement is also growing rapidly with impressive results. In 1999 urban agriculture produced 46% of Cuba’s fresh vegetables, 38% of non-citrus fruit, and 13% of its roots and tubers. The government supports this movement by making land available, by allowing relatively unrestricted free-market sales of the food, and by supporting organic research centers that are making impressive advances in biofertilizers and biopesticides. Cuba leads the developing world in small-scale composting, organic soil reclamation, irrigation and crop rotation research, animal powered traction (oxen) and other innovative practices.

I wanted to learn more, first hand, about the urban agriculture revolution in Cuba. So in December, 2004 I was able to spend several days in Havana. The first stop on my tour was a two-acre garden at Avenida 4 and Calle 4, tended by Benito Ross and two helpers. Benito grows over a dozen salad crops and produces 35 tons of food a year in exquisitely maintained raised beds propped up by old slate roof tiles and drainage tiles. A large, active compost pile graces the entrance to the garden, along with thousands of soda cans adapted as seedling starters.

Benito is a succession planting genius, with most of his crops grown and sold within 50 days of planting to people and restaurants in the neighborhood. He uses drip irrigation and shade netting to optimize yields in the tropical sun.

Next stop was a larger 4–5 acre market garden at Avenida 5 and Calle 44. The official Organiponico billboard announces the time and days for buying produce. This project was clearly the commercial and activity center of the neighborhood and it had an air of government sanction and control with long, neat rows of lettuce, kale, peppers, tomatoes and cabbage in cinder block raised beds. 

My favorite garden was in the Miramar neighborhood. It was started in 1993 in a vacant lot across from a school, and students help work the garden as part of their curriculum. Enrico Diaz, a former math teacher at the school, is the head gardener. He, a few helpers and the students work all year to grow 33 varieties of vegetables and medicinal plants. All the food from this garden is donated to the elderly and poor in the area, assuring that they get three good meals a day. I stayed for hours learning about Enrico’s approaches to biological pest control and companion planting, use of beets to absorb excess salt in the soil, use of mustard greens to guide soil fertility improvement, and more.

 

Urban agriculture in Cuba offers a powerful alternative for feeding the growing urban populations in developing countries. The lessons are many. Organiponico are blending traditional growing methods with new, science-based approaches to soil improvement and natural pest control. Land is made available for growing because the value of high-quality, locally grown food is understood. The result is every vacant lot and open piece of ground is put to productive (and beautiful) use. Farmers are encouraged to sell directly to consumers so they have the financial incentive to grow more and produce it more efficiently. The Cuban Organiponico movement just may have some lessons for us here in the US.

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