GARDENERS COME FROM ALL WALKS OF LIFE: ARTISTS, DOCTORS, TEACHERS. FERNANDO MOREL, PRESIDENT OF THE CUBAN ASSOCIATION OF AGRONOMISTS SAID: “IT’S AMAZING. WHEN WE HAD MORE RESOURCES IN THE 80S, OIL AND EVERYTHING, THE SYSTEM WAS LESS EFFICIENT THAN IT IS TODAY.”
Part IV - The urban agricultural miracle
Today, Vivero Alamar (Alamar Gardens) is an oasis amid the monotonous array of perfectly rectangular apartment blocks of Soviet-style housing in the Alamar district of eastern Havana. It is a 27-acre organic farm set in the middle of a city of two million people. Founded in 1994 on a small 9-acre parcel of land, it has become a 140-person business  producing a steady harvest of a wide range of fruits and vegetables: lettuces, carrots, tomatoes, avocadoes, culinary and medicinal herbs, chard and cucumbers. After harvest the crops are sold directly to neighbours at a colourful farm stand. Vivero Alamar also sells a range of organic composts and mulches and a selection of patio plants. In 2005, this neighbourhood-managed worker-owned cooperative earned approximately $180 000. After capital improvements and operating expenses, it pays each worker about $500 a year; compared to the Cuban minimum wage of $10 a month. Vivero Alamar is just one example of the revolution in food production that has 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 are blossoming. Some 300 000 Cubans are busy growing their own fruits and vegetables and selling the surplus to their neighbours.
Although urban agriculture is totally organic, the country as a whole is not. But the amount of chemical inputs has been drastically reduced. Before the crisis hit in 1989, 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 pesticids a year, today, it is about 1 000 tons
Like many small poor countries, Cuba remains reliant on export agriculture to earn hard currency. It is a robust exporter of tobacco, sugar, coffee, and citrues, and is selling a significant amount of the last three as certified organic . Foreign investment in such ventures is on the rise. But when it comes to sustainable agriculure, Cuba’s most impressive innovation is its network of urban farms and gardens.
According to Cuba’s Minsitry of Agriculture, some 150 000 acres of land is being cultivated in urban and suburban settings, in thousands of community farms, ranging from modest courtyards to production sites that fill entire city blocks. Organoponicos, as they are called, show how a combination of grassroots effort and official support can result in sweeping change, and how neighbours can come together and feed themselves. When the food crisis hit, the organoponicos were an ad hoc response by local communities to increase the amount of available food. But as the power 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.
Most organoponicos are built on land unsuitable for cultivation; they rely on raised planter beds. Once the organoponicos are laid out, the work remains labour-intensive. All planting and weeding is done by hand, as is harvesting. Soil fertility is maintained by worm composting. Farms feed their excess biomass, along with manure from nearby rural farms to worms that produce a nutrient-rich fertilizer. Crews spread about two pound of compost per square yard on the bed tops before each new planting.
Jason Marks writes : “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 quiet grace.”
Gardeners come from all walks of life: artists, doctors, teachers. Fernando Morel, president of the Cuban Association of Agronomists said: “It’s amazing. When we had more resources in the 80s, oil and everything, the system was less efficient than it is today.”
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 centres, schools and hospitals. The workers get to keep the rest to sell at produce stands located right at the farm. It is more than fair trade.
The City of Havana now produces enough food for each resident to receive a daily serving of 280 g of fruits and vegetables a day. The UN food programme recommends 305 g.
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.”
Long queues of shoppers form at the farm stalls, people are shopping for quality and freshness, the produce is harvested as they buy, reducing waste to a minimum.
Urban agriculture nationwide reduces the dependence of urban populations on rural produce. Apart from organoponicos, there are over 104 000 small plots, patios and popular gardens, very small parcels of land covering an area of over 3 600 ha, producing more than the organoponicos and intensive gardens combined . There are also self-provisioning farms around factories, offices and business, more than 300 in Havana alone. Large quantities of vegetables, root crops, grains, and fruits are produced, as well as milk, meat, fish eggs and herbs. In addition, suburban farms are intensively cultivated with emphasis on efficient water use and maximum reduction of agrotoxins; these are very important in Havana, Santa Clara, Sancti Spiritus, Camaguey, and Santiago de Cuba. Shaded cultivation and Apartment-style production allow year-round cultivation when the sun is at its most intense.
Cultivation is also done with diverse soil substrate and nutrient solutions, mini-planting beds, small containers, balconies, roofs, etc. with minimal use of soil. Production levels of vegetables have double or tipled every year since 1994, and urban gardens now produce about 60 percent of all vegetables consumed in Cuba, but only 50 percent of all vegetables consumed in Havana.
The success of urban agriculture is put down to the average Cuban citizen’s commitment to the ideal of local food production . There is so much for the world to learn from the Cuban experience, not least of which, agriculture without fossil fuels is not only possible but also highly productive and health promoting in more ways than one.