I recently took a trip to the city of Havana, Cuba with the hope of seeing some of the urban agriculture I had heard so much about. First a little background: the Cuban economy was sent into a complete crisis when the Soviet system collapsed and they lost access to a major trading partner. All exports and imports ground to a screeching halt and Cubans entered what they call the "Special Period." It was during this time that Cuban agriculture shifted from an industrial, chemical intensive model to a more diversified, small scale and organic model. The learning curve was steep out of sheer necessity and now Cuba can show examples of organic agriculture at its best, in spite of the ongoing US embargo. Under the Castro system, Cuban farmers may produce some of their own crops to sell at farmers' markets; this makes farmers one of the few groups that are able to have their own small enterprise since most businesses in Cuba are owned by the government. I was extremely lucky to be able to visit the famous Alamar Organiponico in Havana. This is one of the most innovative, organic vegetable farms I have ever seen and seems to have incredible high yields off of a relatively small parcel of land (roughly 20 acres). The Alamar Organiponico is a Basic Unit of Production, which in Cuban terms means that the land is owned by the government but the produce and its proceeds are owned by the workers who work cooperatively and share the profit. With the help of translator and friend, Majel Reyes, I met with the director of the Organiponico, Miguel Salcines Lopez. He explained to us that when agriculture in Cuba was industrial and monocrop systems only, with high levels of mechanization, many rural people left the countryside because their labor had been replaced by machines and subsistence agriculture was no longer possible. This great influx into the cities made for a new cultural outlook that disdained agrarian life. Part of the importance of the Alamar project is to create a type of agriculture that is human scaled and rewarding on all levels: financial, physical and spiritual. He believes strongly that if the people do not find meaning and beauty in their work, then the plants and crops will suffer.
Mr. Salcines was trained as an agronomist and worked for the government in a bureaucratic job for most of his career but said his soul woke up once he was able to work on the organiponico. His joy and enthusiasm seemed contagious. The farm consists of greenhouses, screenhouses, tropical ornamental plant nurseries, small scale forage crops, composting facility, vermiculture facility, a cafe, a farmstand, and a value added facility. Every crop we saw was a healthy bursting splash of green. Most crops are grown in raised beds with four rotations per year. Since the land is farmed so intensively, soil rejuvenation is constantly in motion with the addition of worm castings, compost, and soil innoculated with mychorrizal fungi (a beneficial fungus which is produced on site).
All of their field transplants are grown on site and their potting soil is mixed on site. It is made up of rice hulls, worm castings, and compost.
As you can see, plant spacing is very tight, but because of careful crop rotation, use of beneficial insects, and attention to soil health, disease and insect pressure is at a minimum. I was surprised to see that crops showed no sign of disease or stress in spite of the tight spacing and lack of air circulation between plants.
There are more photos available here. I encourage everyone to consider the possibility of going to Cuba. Americans can go legally under a general license if they are conducting research pertaining to their profession. Seeing a country where the people are at once poor yet highly educated with access to all kinds of arts and culture is a truly illuminating experience. The warmth and intelligence of all the Cubans we met was a life changing experience and one that I hope to repeat. Cuba libre!