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

September 29th, 2014

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 :  Or, contact me at

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.

Hugelkultur: How to Build Rich Soil Using ALL Your Yard Waste

September 2nd, 2014

raised garden bed hugelkultur after one month, a realistic rendering


I garden and farm (really market garden) in 3 locations.  My yard is about 1 acre of gardens and several acres of woods that I manage for cord wood and to support wildlife.  Problem: I have too many limbs and softwood thinnings and I need a good way to recycle this organic material. 

Six years ago I started Farm at South Village, a small CSA on 4 acres of heavy clay soil with 70 members.  Problem: we need to expand the farmable area for pick-your-own berries and fruits but the available land is poorly drained clay. 

Eight years ago I started Tierra Pacific Organic Farm in Costa Rica.  Problem: The soil is very depleted due to years of chemical use and compaction from cattle and it’s tough to add and retain sufficient organic matter in the intense tropical climate (heat, wind, wet/dry weather).

My solution: hugelkultur; pronounced hoo-gul-culture, means hill culture or mound culture.  It’s a way to make very productive raised growing beds by recycling organic waste.  Hugelkultur accelerates the process forests use to break down organic matter and build topsoil using large raised beds with pieces of waste wood forming the base. Then layered on top is composting materials rich in nitrogen (manure, green matter, food waste) and carbon (leaves, dry cuttings).  The beds are topped with cardboard, topsoil, mulch, etc.

The benefits of hugelkultur beds are many:

·         Maximizes water retention and keeps moisture on site. The logs and branches act like a sponge. Rainwater is absorbed and then released during drier times.  Often, you never need to water your new raised bed after the first year.

·         Builds long-term soil fertility as the gradual decay of the wood can supply nutrients for decades. Decomposing wood attracts beneficial fungi and soil life increasing plant resistance to pests and disease.

·         Improves drainage for problem soils by shedding water off the growing beds and improving soil tilth. 

·         Aerates naturally (no tilling needed) because air pockets are formed as wood rots and shrinks creating space for the roots and habitat for soil life.

·         Restores poor soil and problem areas (depleted soil, compacted soil, poorly drained soil).

·         Produces heat with the gradual wood decomposition thus extending the growing season (good in VT).

·         Maintains cool, moist soil in hot areas to extend growing season (good in Costa Rica).

·         Recycles rotting wood, twigs, branches, and logs that are unsuitable for other uses rather than burning or landfilling them.

·         And perhaps most important of all for our future, sequesters carbon in the soil rather than releasing more into the atmosphere. 

I have tested hugelkultur beds at home and in Costa Rica with good results.  This Dec-March we will install a new 1 acre fruit and perennial plant educational garden behind our commercial center.  And we are planning the same thing next spring to expand the Farm at South Village pick-your-own garden.

Why not begin testing how a hugelkultur raised bed can solve gardening and waste recycling problems for you?  Here are some additional resources to guide you:


Help Your Garden Help Others: Donate Excess Produce Locally, with

July 29th, 2014

Backyard gardeners can help change this shocking number – click image for a running tab of the pounds of food wasted in the U.S. since the beginning of 2014.

How is it that one of out of every six Americans experience food insecurity when there is more than an adequate supply of food potentially available? A broken food system is big part of this issue and one of the many reasons I started the Intervale Center 30 years ago (more on that below.) 

According to both the National Resource Defense Council and the US Department of Agriculture, we throw away a pound of food per person per day in this country, or well over 100 billion pounds of food per year. Some estimate this to be more than enough to totally eliminate hunger in America. You can view a thought provoking image that gives a running tab on the 40% of food wasted since the beginning of 2014.  

Not included in these statistics is the volume of home-grown produce discarded by us, the more than 40 million gardeners across the U.S. Why do we it? Sometimes our plants produce far more fruits and vegetables than we could possibly use, preserve or give away. It is not uncommon for tomato plants to bear 20 to 40 or more fruit each, more than we can use. Many other crops, such as peppers, cucumbers, squash, citrus, apples and peaches, also produce abundant harvest.

And our neighbors and friends can only use so much. Until recently, it's been difficult to find food shelves that would accept fresh harvests due to space and refrigeration issues. But now, thanks to Gary Oppenheimer of, you can harvest your excess and get it into the hands of hungry children and adults who need it. 

The web site is free and easy to use. Enter your address or zip code, and generates a list of registered food pantries in your community. You’ll get an address and phone number, and often directions and additional information about what produce is most beneficial or when it can be accepted.

In just five years, has connected more than 40,000 backyard gardeners to their local food pantries. As a result, more than 21 million pounds of excess produce have been diverted from the compost pile—an amount of food that would fill 76 Olympic-size swimming pools!

I hope you’ll take a moment to visit and learn instantly how you can donate your excess garden produce to the nearest food pantry. And please share this link on your social media and gardening friends.

As mentioned above, the Intervale Center, is now a national model for creating local food systems and also has a gleaning program that provides 5,000 pounds of food to our local Vermont area.

So gather up your produce, visit and put that delicious, fresh food to work eliminating hunger and improving health in your community.





Gary Oppenheimer, founder of, has helped more than 40 million gardeners connect with their local food pantries to donate extra produce.  Currently, 6,930 food pantries across all 50 states are registered to receive a sustainable and recurring supply of freshly harvested,locally grown food (many for the first time) from area growers and gardeners – for free.