Cuba: Now and Its Future

As relations warm between Cuba and the U.S., Cuban organic agriculture continues to evolve, for a few surprising reasons.

By Leo Nieter | Photos By Leo Nieter

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Click here for “Cuba at the Crossroads,” to see more photos, stats and personal reflections of the author >>

“Here, you are going to see more than 300 species of ornamental plants and vegetables,” explains Miguel Salcines. As the president of Organopónico Vivero Alamar, an organic farm on the outskirts of Havana, he has the panache and magnetism  of a seasoned public relations director.

Miguel Salcines, president of Vivero Alamar.

Miguel Salcines, president of Vivero Alamar.

Salcines, a former government agronomist, originally founded this cooperative farm almost 20 years ago as a vegetable garden. Today, with more than 25 acres, the farm provides 100% organic vegetables, including lettuce, beets, mint and sugarcane. Like many farms in Cuba, the land is plowed by a sturdy pair of oxen in lieu of machinery. And, as an energized and vocal advocate for organic farming and a healthy, chemical-free diet for people of all ages, Salcines is proud of his work.

In terms of its relative scale, yield, age and success, Vivero Alamar, which employs around 120 workers, is considered a flagship of sorts for Cuban organic agriculture. An urban farm, or UBPC (which, in English, stands for Basic Unit of Cooperative Production), farmers from across Latin America come here for an immersive education, and the cooperative has been visited by many other international organizations.

Organic produce at a Havana community market.

Organic produce at a Havana community market.

In addition to promoting the health benefits of organic foods, Salcines is in tune with the potential for global market opportunities. “In the first world,” he says, “there is a huge concern about [the quality of] food—in Europe even more than in the United States.” International standards for certifying organic product vary. But in Cuba, organic produce generally means that chemical fertilizers or pesticides were not used, as is the case at Alamar.

“Three or four months ago, I was in California for an event about organic agriculture. I was a little bit nervous because I had this perception about how agriculture worked in California.” Yet, he explains, “I realized that we are almost as prepared as Americans in organic agriculture matters.”

The “Special Period” And Its Impact

While there is an impressive amount of know-how and ambition in Cuba, the country lacks a modern infrastructure to help improve both yields and delivery of farm goods to feed its population.

Modern equipment would help local farms improve their efficiency, “but, we don’t have Home Depot,” Salcines says about the U.S.-based home improvement retailer, offering it as an example of retail availability in the developed world. “If we get an agreement with Home Depot and Cuba, then we can fix things.”

During what’s known as the “Special Period,” Cuba was essentially economically abandoned after the collapse of the Soviet Union, its major sponsor. An economic crisis ensued, costing the nation 80% of its trading exchange and a two-thirds decrease in GDP. Considerable expertise pertaining to farming was also lost, along with modern resources like oil, pesticides and farm equipment. As a result, organic agriculture—and its reliance on fewer inputs—was often the only alternative.

The loss of influence from the former Soviet Union led to other changes too.

The Ministry of Agriculture building in Havana.

The Ministry of Agriculture building in Havana.

Jorge Egozcue, an economics professor from the University of Havana, is an authority on the complexities of Cuba’s agriculture and macroeconomic policy, and reforms put in place over the past two decades that encourage more private business ownership and entrepreneurialism.

“It was really a crash,” he says. “We have, from 1989 to 1993, a free fall of the economy of 34% of GDP. Imagine an airplane suddenly losing its engines.”

Ag Reforms In A Socialist State

According to Egozcue, the latest national reforms began in 2013, including making privatized urban agriculture a priority for the country. The government also offers land to citizens through a lease agreement incentive program, and implemented a new tax system. The hope is to make growers more efficient and competitive.

A worker tends beds protected from pests by immense lengths of overhead screen.

A worker tends beds protected from pests by immense lengths of overhead screen.

For many Cubans used to a more constant, equalized state-controlled system, many of these changes have created their own learning curves. Yet, such a transformation is believed to be mission-critical by everyday citizens and the most powerful government officials. “Either we change course or we sink,” President Raúl Castro warned in December 2010.

The reforms seem to be having a stabilizing effect. Many Cubans are even leaving the urban business sector in order to work on their own farms or cooperatives, where they can today make more money than many other occupations.

Support for producers is also available. Attendance at UNAH (the Agrarian University of Havana) is free. Throughout the country, there is access to farm association outposts affiliated with UNAH, providing facilities, veterinary and agrarian personnel, and quarterly university journals with the latest research findings.

“There are 14 scientific institutions that work on these topics,” Salcines says.

Looking To The Future

When Cuban officials are asked what they now need most to improve ag efficiencies and yields, the response is often simply: “We need everything.” There is hope that warming relations with the U.S. will help.

Since the Cuban Missile Crisis, the U.S. has maintained a trade embargo—which Cubans commonly refer to as a blockade—on the island nation. The effects are felt throughout the country. For instance, extremely few Cuban exports (around 1.5%) have been permitted in the United States. Imports from Cuba’s neighbor to the north have also been similarly low.

Canada and many other countries have long had normalized trade relations with Cuba. Yet, even in the current climate of rapprochement, in which many restrictions have been lifted, the U.S. continues to limit use of credit for travelers to and businesses based in the country where capital to purchase imports is lacking.

Conversely, trade credits now make China Cuba’s largest creditor and second largest trade partner after Venezuela.

Vivero Alamar employees Ronnier and Alfredo with mint plants.

Vivero Alamar employees Ronnier and Alfredo with mint plants.

Feeding the nation (including a fresh tourism boom) is among Cuba’s most immediate issues, say citizens and government officials alike. Even though citizens use a rationing system to obtain food through government stores, the country frequently faces food shortages and price spikes. And while Cuba’s population continues to decline, it’s aging at what some believe is an alarming rate. What that means for agriculture is a less able population and the need for greater mechanization, much of which would come from the U.S.

This year represents a fragile, pivotal and historically significant moment for the United States and Cuba, with much more work to be done in both countries for the relationship to be mutually beneficial.

In the meantime, more tourists are streaming into Cuba. Already a destination for citizens of other countries, Cuba saw the number of American visitors double in 2016 compared to 2014, when the Obama administration began normalizing relations. While that could be a potential strain on the country’s food stores, many Cubans feel it’s good news for the overall economy.

Back at Vivero Alamar, near Havana, Miguel Salcines says his country’s agricultural reforms mean his farm does not have to sell all of its yield to the state.

As a result, there is a shop just outside the farm gates that sells directly to the population, and that organic produce is also sold to some hotels. “Did you have a mojito from Floridita?” Salcines smiles and asks, referring to the central Havana bar made famous by Ernest Hemingway when he was a neighborhood resident.

“The mint is from here.”

WEB EXCLUSIVE: Click here for “Cuba at the Crossroads,” to see more photos, stats and personal reflections of the author >>