Growing it alone

Urban organic agriculture on the island of Cuba


photo of young people in matching shirts working in a gardenReutersMembers of Cuba’s Union of Young Communists and students of the Lenin School tend a vegetable garden in Havana.

The Alamar district in eastern Havana is a typical example of Soviet-style housing. Perfectly rectangular apartment blocks march in formation, one after another. The plazas between the buildings are spacious, yet somehow eerie in their geometric severity. The uniform architecture is meant to erase class distinctions, but the effect – as in the public housing complexes of the US – serves mostly to erase creativity and liveliness. The monotony of the layout seems to check morale.

Until, that is, one discovers Vivero Alamar – Alamar Gardens. Surrounded on all sides by seven-story apartment buildings, Vivero Alamar is a kind of oasis, a 27-acre working farm set right in the middle of a bustling city of 2 million people. The farm is everything that the surrounding architecture is not – polyform, versatile, organic.

Founded in 1994 on a smaller nine-acre parcel of land, Vivero Alamar today is a 140-person venture growing a wide range of fruits and vegetables. A patchwork quilt of orchards, shade houses, and row crops provides a steady harvest of bright green lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, avocados, culinary and medicinal herbs, chard, and cucumbers. The crops are healthy-looking, well tended, and all grown without the use of chemical fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides. Vivero Alamar is a completely organic operation.

Upon harvest, the farm’s produce is sold to the neighbors at a colorful farm stand. Vivero Alamar also sells a range of organic composts and mulches for families’ use, as well as a broad selection of patio plants, propagated on site. In 2005, this neighborhood-managed, worker-owned co-operative earned approximately $180,000. After capital improvements and operating expenses are taken into account, that translates to about $500 per worker annually; not bad, considering that the Cuban minimum wage is $10 per month.

Noel Peña, the 41-year-old production manager of Vivero Alamar, is quick to describe the farm’s benefits. “First, it’s a job opportunity for the people. Second, it provides a fresh food supply to the community. Third, it has many economic benefits for the families. And I could mention a fourth, which is that an ugly place in the city has been turned into a
beautiful garden.”

Vivero Alamar is just one example (albeit a best-case one) of a revolution in food production that swept Cuba in the early 1990s and continues today. From Santiago de Cuba in the east to Pinar del Rio in the west, thousands of urban gardens like Vivero Alamar are blossoming. In community food parks, backyard patios, and larger urban farms like the one in Alamar, some 300,000 Cubans are busy growing their own fruits and vegetables and then selling the surplus to their neighbors.

This innovative system has distinguished Cuba as a model of urban, organic agriculture; the Cuban government and Cuban NGOs have won numerous international awards for their agriculture system. While the experience of this tropical nation of 10 million people is not entirely replicable in US communities, the Cuban experiment nevertheless offers important lessons. For the Cubans’ recent history proves that, if driven by necessity, people can and will organize grassroots, community-based ways to feed themselves. At the same time, the Cuban experience shows that even a modest amount of government support and investment can greatly amplify community efforts. If – as a growing number of academics warn – industrial nations ever face food supply disruptions due to climate change or peak oil, such lessons will be vital.

Because, in one crucial aspect, the Cuban story is universally applicable. After all, everyone eats.

Things fall apart

The Cubans did not come to their exalted status as organic pioneers through some benevolent ecological epiphany. Their conversion to organic agriculture was, quite simply, the result of scarcity. The Cubans ran out of money and oil, and then they started to run out of food.

During the Cold War, the Cuban economy relied heavily on support from the Soviet Union and the other members of the Socialist Bloc. The Cubans sent sugar to the USSR, and in return received, most importantly, oil, but also a range of industrial products, including farm inputs such as chemical fertilizers, pesticides, herbicides, and tractors. The Soviets also sold cattle to the Cubans, and provided animal feed and antibiotics. Approximately 50 percent of Cuba’s food came from abroad. The USSR may have provided Cuba a security shield against US aggression, but it also left the island dangerously insecure when it came to food.

When the USSR collapsed, Cuba ground to a halt. From 1989 to 1993, the Cuban economy contracted by 35 percent; foreign trade dropped a precipitous 75 percent. Without Soviet oil, city streets were emptied of cars and, more ominously, tractors were idled in the fields; domestic agriculture production fell by half. Millions of hogs, cattle, and goats died as the processed forage and antibiotics they had come to depend on evaporated. Imported essentials such as vegetable oil and wheat flour were difficult to come by.

During this time, which Fidel Castro euphemistically called “The Special Period,” food scarcities became acute. The average per-capita calorie intake fell from 2,900 a day in 1989 to 1,800 calories in 1995. Protein consumption plummeted 40 percent. As Cubans lost weight, cats disappeared from the streets of Havana, destined for family soup pots.

Then the Cubans went to work, proving that necessity is, in fact, the mother of invention. Without government direction or urging – an important point, given the state-run nature of Cuban society – people began to spontaneously grow their own food. In the cities, residents took over garbage dumps, parking lots, and abandoned corners, and started to plant gardens and build chicken coops. In the countryside, the old-timers went back to the fields and showed people how they could make do with oxen and using their own hands to do the labor.

“We started this with no money,” said Vilda Figueroa, who built one of the first urban gardens in Havana and who now hosts a nutrition education program on television with her husband, Pepe. “We knew that the most valuable thing was the support of the community. So we started training volunteers who could horizontally spread the knowledge among their neighbors. We wanted something grassroots so we could popularize this idea of small-scale production.”

While urban residents built community gardens to meet their own needs, the government undertook a sweeping national agrarian reform program. The large, Soviet-model state farms were broken into smaller, farmer-run co-operatives. The state started to set up an infrastructure of organic compost and organic pest and disease control centers to help farmers make the transition away from chemical inputs. To give farmers incentives to grow produce for the domestic market, the government allowed the creation of farmers’ markets in the cities, a break from the formerly state-dominated food system.

”It’s amazing. When we had more resources in the ‘80s – oil and everything – the system was less efficient than it is today.”

Today, Cuban agriculture is on the mend. Vegetable production doubled from 1994 to 1998, and then doubled again in 1999. Harvest totals for key crops such as potatoes and plantains have tripled. Cereal and bean yields are up, as are numbers for meat and egg production. Perhaps most significantly, daily caloric intake is back to its 1989 level and, in a sign of restored prosperity, some Cubans are beginning to worry about obesity.

And all of this has occurred using just a fraction of the chemicals that agriculture in the “developed” world depends on. Before the crisis hit, Cuba used more than 1 million tons of synthetic fertilizers a year; today it uses about 90,000 tons. During the Soviet period, Cuba applied up to 35,000 tons of herbicides and pesticides a year; today the number is about 1,000 tons. The country is a living example of how to grow food on a large, national scale without being reliant on petroleum-based inputs.

“It’s very simple. We’ve moved to organics, not because we’re Greenpeace members, but because we can’t afford chemicals,” Juan José León, an official at the Cuban Ministry of Agriculture, told me. “Everything we have gained, all the experience we have gained, we are not going to leave that behind.”

Growing community

Like many small, poor countries, Cuba remains reliant on exported agriculture to earn hard currency. The island is a robust exporter of tobacco, sugar, coffee, and citrus, and is selling a significant amount of the last three products as organically certified. Foreign investment in such ventures is on the rise.

But when it comes to sustainable agriculture, Cuba’s most impressive innovation is its network of urban farms and gardens. There are, according to the country’s Ministry of Agriculture, some 150,000 acres of land being cultivated in urban and suburban settings. That represents thousands of community farms, ranging from modest courtyards to production sites that fill entire city blocks.

These urban farms and gardens – organoponicos, as they are called in Spanish – offer an inspiring example of community organizing and empowerment. An unusual mix of private initiative and public investment, the organoponicos show how a combination of grassroots effort and official support can result in sweeping change. They illustrate, in a very real and tangible way, how neighbors can come together to fulfill that most basic of needs – feeding ourselves.

When the food crisis hit, the organoponicos were an ad hoc response by local communities to increase the amount of available food. No government official from on high had to tell the people that they needed more to eat. But as the potency of the community farming movement became obvious, the Cuban government stepped in to provide key infrastructure support and to assist with information dissemination and skills sharing.

At most organoponicos, the government provides the community farmers with the land and the water. The gardens can buy from the government key materials such as organic composts, seeds, and irrigation parts. Especially important in an organic system, the government sells “biocontrols” such as beneficial insects (predatory bugs like lacewings that eat pests such as aphids); bacterial agents that help keep plant diseases in check; and plant-based oils (such as Neem oil) that work as pesticides. These biological pest and disease controls are produced in some 200 government centers, deliberately small-scale and spread out to increase access to local farms and decrease the need for transportation and fuel use.

What the people provide is the labor. Since most of the organoponicos are built on land unsuitable for cultivation, they rely on raised planter beds to grow their crops – planter beds that require a lot of muscle power to complete. No matter what city or town you find them in, the organoponicos have a signature look: 4-feet-wide by 2.5-feet-deep white-washed planter beds dominate the scene. The length depends on the size of the lot. Some beds are 10-feet-long. Others are closer to 300-feet-long: A football field-sized vegetable garden in the middle of a city.

Once the organoponicos are laid out, the work remains labor-intensive. All of the planting and weeding is done by hand, as is the harvesting. Soil fertility is maintained through a complex system of worm composting. The farms feed their excess biomass, along with manure from nearby rural farms, to worms that then produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Crews spread about two pounds of compost per square yard on the bed tops before each new planting.

Despite the tropical heat, it doesn’t look like drudgery. Among organoponico employees, there is a palpable pride in their creation. The atmosphere is cooperative and congenial: There is no boss in sight, and each person seems to understand well their role and what’s expected of them. The work occurs fluidly, with a quite grace.

photo of an adult and a child working in a gardenReuters photo.A disabled Cuban child waters a garden with the help of a
therapist at a special needs kindergarten in Havana.

“We have all kinds of gardeners – artists, doctors, teachers,” said Fernando Morel, president of the Cuban Association of Agronomists. “It’s amazing. When we had more resources in the ‘80s, oil and everything, the system was less efficient than it is today.”

Indeed, the hybrid public-private partnership appears to work well. In return for providing the land, the government receives a portion of the produce – usually about one-fifth of the harvest – to use at state-run daycare centers, schools, and hospitals. The workers get to keep the rest to sell at produce stands located right at the farm. It seems a more-than-fair trade.

Progress you can eat

By statistical measures, the Cuban experiment with urban agriculture is a success. The city of Havana, for example, produces enough food for each resident to receive a daily serving of 280 grams (9.88 ounces) of fruits and vegetables. The United Nations Food Program recommends 305 grams (10.76 ounces) of fruits and vegetables a day. There are few other cities in the world that could say as much.

But, beyond the government press releases and brochure-friendly images of gardens next to highways, does it really work for ordinary Cubans? The answer is yes, at least as measured by the good cheer of the farmers and the gratitude of the shoppers.

Joe Kovach, an entomologist from Ohio State University who visited Cuba on a 2006 research delegation, sums up the situation: “In 25 years of working with farmers, these are the happiest, most optimistic, and best-paid farmers I have ever met.”

The workers at the five-acre “Cellia Sanchez Manguley” organoponico in the provincial city of Sancti Spíritus prove the point.

“This is beautiful work,” a woman named Aymara said as she harvested tomatoes. “It’s great to be able to reclaim the production for ourselves.”

“I like working here,” said another worker, cigar clamped firmly in his teeth, as he helped with the tomatoes. “It’s close to home. I can go home for lunch. And if I want to work a Saturday or a Sunday and then take off a Monday, I can.”

The other proof is the lines of people that every day stretch past the organoponico produce stands. People are hungry for the local, fresh produce. Questioned about why they shop at the organoponicos, Cubans almost always give the same response: “Quality.”

“It’s good quality, it’s good quantity, and it’s good price,” a woman shopping at the largest urban farm in the central city of Santa Clara told a foreign visitor. “It’s fresh. Look, look at it. They’re harvesting it right now.” She points, and indeed they are. As each customer places an order at the farm stand, farm workers fulfill the request, a system that ensures against any waste. It’s incredible: harvest-on-demand.

photo of a man holding traces to a pair of oxenReutersA Cuban man smokes a cigar while standing next to oxen used to plow soil.

This is a stellar example of the kind of direct marketing that small farmers in the US hope to achieve through sales at local farmers’ markets. By eliminating the middleman, the farmers get paid a higher price for their product. And by bringing the consumer closer to the point of production, people get healthier foods. It’s local food production at its finest, and everybody wins.

Exporting revolution?

Of course, it’s important to acknowledge that Cuba’s green revolution – as impressive as it may be – is not entirely replicable in other countries. After all, Cuba remains a state-dominated society with a high degree of social cohesion (or social control, depending upon your point of view). The question is whether a more liberal society without that kind of central command structure would be able to respond as effectively to a sudden breakdown in the food system.

Perhaps the answer can be glimpsed in the resilience of the experiment. For people in other countries, the lessons of the Cuban success come not through the details of the systems, (which are society- and site-specific) but via the average Cuban citizen’s commitment to the ideal of local food production.

The case of bicycling in Havana helps make the case. During the “Special Period” bikes became a common sight throughout Cuba as the country grasped for fossil fuel-free transportation. Recently, however, Venezuela’s ideologically sympathetic president, Hugo Chavez, has given some $2 billion a year in subsidized oil to Cuba. Not surprisingly, perhaps, most people in Havana have given up their bikes and returned to their cars. But while the bikes have disappeared, the urban farms and gardens have not. That’s because they provide a direct source of jobs and food to the community. Nothing sharpens the attention quite like hunger.

Even as Cuba enjoys increased opportunities to return to a chemical-based, long-distance food system, the country is sticking with its organoponicos.

Urban farmer Israel Hernandez says that he, for one, would not give up managing his half-acre organoponico. A wiry and intense old-timer, he has the leathery hands and wrinkled features of someone who has spent most of his years in the sun. When he talks about his garden – the work he does there with children, and how he provides vegetables to a local daycare center – his pride is obvious. In his commitment to growing food for his neighborhood, one hears the persistence of nature, the yearning that we feel to be connected to the biological systems on which our very lives depend.

“I used to live in the mountains, and I fought in the mountains with the Revolution, and I worked on a dairy,” Hernandez said. “I became a history teacher, and later I worked for the government in the Interior Ministry. I was retired. I stopped working. And then I came back to run this garden. I love it, I love it. We have a saying here in Cuba: ‘The wild animal returns to the wild.’ … I am that wild animal.”

Jason Mark is working on his second book, Building the Green Economy: Success Stories from the Grassroots, to be published in the fall of 2007 by PoliPointPress. He co-manages San Francisco’s Alemany Farm (

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