Organic or starve: Can Cuba’s new farming model provide food security?

Once it grew only sugar and was heavy handed with fertilizers and pesticides, now Cuba is in the grip of a small-scale organic farming revolution

In the town of Hershey, a couple of hours’ drive east of Havana in Mayabeque province, you can see the past and the future of Cuban farming, side by side.

The abandoned hulk of the Camilo Cienfuegos sugar plant, shut along with 70 other cane refineries in 2002, towers over the town. But in the lush hills and grasslands around Hershey, farm fields of manioc, corn, beans, and vegetables are a sign that there is life after sugar in a country that has never been able to feed itself.

Once owned by the famous Pennsylvania chocolate maker, the Cienfuegos plant for years supplied the sugar that sweetened Hershey’s candy bars. After Fidel Castro came to power in the 1959 revolution, the plant was nationalized and became property of the state, its sugar shipped to the Soviet Union and its allies.

An abandoned sugar refinery stands in the Cuban town of Hershey, where resident Yoanki Valdés carries a bucket to water garden crops. Two similar, adjacent buildings were demolished when the sugar plant was closed, in 2002.

As the world’s largest sugar exporter, Cuba relied on tons of pesticides and fertilizers and heavy mechanization to produce up to 8.4 million tons of sugar—its peak harvest, in 1990—nearly all of it exported to the Communist bloc. The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 eliminated Cuba’s guaranteed market and, coupled with a tightening of the U.S. trade embargo, sent the island’s economy into an extended coma. The sugar industry muddled along for another decade until the government ordered the closure of 71 of the island’s 156 sugar refineries. Places that had depended on sugar for a century became ghost towns.

Today, the trains that once carried Hershey’s sugar to port sit idly on the tracks, apparently abandoned. Old-timers rest under a nearby tree, reminiscing and drinking rum from a bottle. Yoanki Valdés lives across the street from the carcass of the plant where, for 30 years, he went to work every morning at the sound of the 7:00 a.m. whistle. Trained as an industrial engineer in Czechoslovakia, he had risen to the position of foreman when he heard the news: The plant was closing. A week later, it was shut.

“The most normal thing for everyone was to work in the sugar plant. Sugar gave work and a way of life,” said his son, also named Yoanki. Yet the two men don’t sound bitter. They understand the reasons for the closure: sagging prices, inefficiencies, dependence on a single, distant market, and the continued refusal of the United States to restore Cuba’s pre-revolutionary sugar import quota long after the ostensible reason for revoking it—the country’s alliance with the Soviet Union—was gone.

“By closing those plants, we redesigned the sugar industry,” said Rafael Suárez Rivacoba, director of international relations at state sugar company Azcuba. “And about one million hectares of sugarcane were dedicated instead to food crops.”

Cuba lost 80 percent of its international trade in the three years after the fall of the Soviet Union. The result was severe food shortages. Castro dubbed it “the Special Period in peacetime,” a euphemism for what many Cubans describe as one of the worst traumas of their lives. It dragged on for five years, but its psychological effects lasted much longer.

One woman I met remembered people fainting in the street from hunger. An artist remembered regular rations for children, but for adults like himself, an endless diet of sugar water. Another stressed years of blackouts and boredom, relieved only by lots of marijuana. An agronomist described to me the death of hundreds of thousands of farm animals due to the loss of imported feed. “We came very close to real starvation,” he said.

Out of the Special Period came a resolve that it must never happen again, and so Cuba’s food-focused farming movement was born.

“The way people thought about food and agriculture changed drastically with the Special Period,” said Miguel Angel Salcines, who runs a 25-acre organic farm in the outlying Havana district of Alamar that he started in those years. “Boats had arrived from the Soviet Union full of chemicals and fertilizers, and suddenly there were no more boats from the Soviet Union, and people asked, Do we need all those chemicals?”

Lettuce crops thrive in boxed planting beds at the Alamar organic farm, in the shadow of Soviet-era housing blocks.

The farms around Hershey don’t employ many people, but they sell their produce to local cooperatives so residents can buy it to supplement their meager monthly rations of state-produced or imported food. In Cuba’s revolutionary heyday, all this farmland was used to cultivate sugar.

Cuba imports between 60 and 80 percent of the food it consumes, at a cost of about $2 billion a year. Two-thirds of its corn is imported and two-thirds of its rice, the latter mainly from Vietnam and Brazil. At markets around the country, sacks of rice can be seen piled to the rafters. Cubans love bread, but wheat doesn’t grow well in the tropical climate, so that has to be imported as well—mostly from the United States, which, in an exception to the Cold War–era trade embargo, sells food to Cuba for cash.

In response to this dependence, officials are promoting small, local farms as one way—perhaps the only way—for the country to finally start feeding itself. Although it has happened gradually, the shift to smaller, often organic farming marks a radical change from the monocrop sugarcane economy that ruled Cuba for a century. Small-scale farming is receiving the blessing of once-skeptical agricultural officials who set food priorities in this tightly controlled society.

Urban farming, with its backlot gardens and rooftop chicken coops, took hold in Havana and other Cuban cities in the early 1990s. That movement, also promoted by the government, brought greenery and fresh vegetables to Cuba’s dilapidated inner cities. However, while tourists love to visit them, urban farms have had little impact on Cuba’s overall food production.

The new organic movement is different. Its goal is high yields in rural settings, with an eye toward a reliable, systematic output of staple crops at farms that are close to consumers and usually smaller than 40 hectares (100 acres) or so. Rather than a reaction to a crisis, the current push into organics is planned and promoted on the ruins of the industrial sugar economy.

Organic farmer Miguel Angel Salcines inspects boxed vegetable planting beds at the 25-hectare Alamar farm. Cuban growers often plant organic crops in terrace-like beds because of past chemical contamination of soil.

“Organic farming does not bring the kind of large yields that will solve all our problems. But it solves many of our problems, and it is starting to become important,” said Juan José León Vega, an official at the Ministry of Agriculture. “Ecological farming arose as a response to a reality that smacked us,” said León. That reality was the collapse of the Soviet Union. “They were difficult years. We had to produce food somehow, somewhere.”

Tall, lean, and bald as the farmer with the pitchfork in American Gothic, Agustín Pimentel takes a knife and cuts open one of his organic pineapples. It’s the size of a softball, and inside its meat is a heavenly mix of sweetness and tart.

“It’s sad that the immense majority of farmers in Cuba still use pesticides and chemical fertilizers. They’re poison, and they enter our food,” says Pimentel, who raises 45 different crops on four hectares in an isolated valley in western Cuba. He’s proud of the fact he never uses chemicals of any kind. Yet he’s not sure his farm could ever gain certification as organic. The land, in Pinar del Río province, was once planted with tobacco, which is routinely grown using lots of chemicals whose residue often ends up in neighboring fields.

Pimentel is part of a small, intensely committed movement of organic farmers on this tropical island of red soil and royal palms. Numbering from 40,000 to a quarter of a million—depending on whom you ask and what exactly is meant by “organic” (standards are not always known or consistently followed)—this movement of farmers sees locally grown, nonindustrial farming as a vital part of the solution to Cuba’s chronic food shortages. Many of them consider organic farming nothing less than the future of Cuba’s socialist revolution; others see the potential for exports to European and eventually U.S. markets.

Like many of the island’s organic farmers, Miguel Angel Salcines hopes that former President Obama’s restoration of diplomatic relations presages the day when Cuba can export high-quality organic crops to American supermarkets, though the tough talk from Obama’s successor may make that a distant prospect. American consumers would flip over the quality and variety of Cuban organics, he said, and Cuba needs the cash. “I would love to export my mint leaves to Miami so they could put them in their mojitos. I’m sure they grow mint there, too, but it’s not the same,” said Salcines, half-jokingly.

For now, garden and root vegetables for domestic consumption are the mainstays of Cuban organics. Those crops are among the few areas of agricultural output that have grown in Cuba, by about 15 percent since 2011, to some 5.3 million tons a year, according to official figures released in June.

Organic farmer Agustín Pimentel uses a machete to slice open a coconut on his organic farm in a remote valley in western Cuba. He bottles and sells coconut milk to a local cooperative.

The central government issued farm titles to 223,917 people in the three years through April 2017, covering nearly two million hectares, said the Agriculture Ministry’s León Vega. They’re not ownership titles—79 percent of Cuba’s land is owned by the state—but they give the holder the right to till the land permanently. Not all those farms are organic. But nearly all are small and family-run, and each one marks a sharp break from the way Cuba conducted its agriculture in the sugar heyday.

Much of the impetus for small-scale farming has come from the Program for Local Agricultural Innovation (PIAL). The initiative started around 2002 as a way of getting organic farming beyond urban plots in favor of larger-scale, locally geared agriculture that could help relieve food shortages by bringing fresh produce and meats to Cuban tables. It’s a very Cuban mix of organization, idealism, and state direction, with help from sympathetic foreigners. PIAL is regulated by Cuba’s Agriculture Ministry but funded largely by European and Canadian foundations. Its founder, Humberto Ríos Labrada, won the Goldman Environmental Prize in the United States in 2010.

PIAL has helped small, organic farmers share knowledge, get good-quality seeds, and connect with buyers, said Sandra Miranda, a biochemist and one of the program’s designers. But PIAL’s main achievement, she said, was to show farmers that organic production was no locavore foodie fad. It was, rather, Cuba’s food future.

Today, about 250 farm cooperatives, and about 50,000 farmers, across Cuba are enrolled in PIAL, Miranda said. Each cooperative can include anywhere from half a dozen to hundreds of small farms.

Manioc crops (foreground) and fruit trees (rear) thrive at farmer Agustín Pimentel’s organic farm in a valley in Pinar del Río province, western Cuba.

The organic farmers among them face the kinds of barriers that organic farmers face elsewhere. They get lower yields and hence less money for their crops and livestock. Pimentel said he gives his pigs strictly organic fodder, but “even giving them organic feed all their lives, I’m still going to get the same price per kilo as if I’d stuffed them with chemicals.” His smaller-than-average manioc roots and pineapples regularly fetch a lower price from the cooperatives than his neighbors’ conventionally grown varieties.

Perhaps half the farmers involved in PIAL are fully organic, said Miranda. Those that aren’t will fumigate some crops such as garlic and cabbage, but non-fumigated crops typically form the bulk of their production. More and more are phasing out chemicals, even though, Miranda acknowledged, “their motivation for pursuing organic farming was economic, not environmental, because people could not obtain chemical inputs at any price.”

The gains in organic farming, though tentative and tough to quantify, stand in contrast to the dismal performance of Cuban agriculture overall. New government figures show that efforts to lift food production overall have made little progress, despite repeated calls from President Raúl Castro to boost production, smooth out inefficiencies, and reduce food imports. Cuba produced 2.4 billion eggs last year, for example, nearly unchanged since 2011 and still insufficient to increase the monthly ration of five eggs per person.

Farm yields are pathetically low, despite Cuba having possibly the richest soil of any tropical country in the world, said Pedro Sanchez, an agronomist at the University of Florida who was raised on a farm in Cuba and returns regularly. “They’re raising one metric ton per acre of corn. It’s ridiculous,” he said.

Cuba’s slow shift toward organic owes much of its inspiration and technical know-how to one family, the Funes clan of Havana. Fernando Funes Aguilar and his wife, Marta Monzote, who died in 2007, spoke and wrote passionately about the damage that indiscriminate use of chemical inputs and the sugar monoculture were doing to Cuba’s ecology and food supply. A committed revolutionary who speaks proudly of his service with Cuban forces in Angola, Funes Aguilar nonetheless argues in favor of sustainable farming—industrial-scale compost heaps instead of boatloads of imported fertilizer, rotating crops instead of year-round sugarcane. His warnings won a vindication of sorts with the 1990s collapse.

“The mentality here used to be that the solution to the problem of feeding ourselves was to use more chemical inputs. That had to change for the movement toward agroecology to take root,” said Funes Aguilar, 76, in his modest apartment in Havana. He believes organic or nearly organic farming now accounts for perhaps 20 percent of Cuba’s total output, up from close to zero only a decade ago. He sees organic farming not just as Cuba’s best hope for avoiding mass starvation again but as a route to achieving its deepest—and repeatedly frustrated—dream of lasting independence.

His son, Fernando Funes Monzote, is a scholar-farmer with a doctorate in agronomy from Wageningen University in the Netherlands. He runs an organic farm on eight hectares about 20 kilometers west of Havana called Finca Marta, named for his mother. The land was practically abandoned when Funes Monzote started farming here in 2011. Today, after some lean years, the place is booming with production of a long list of crops, including corn, avocados, mangoes, and radishes. Every few days, the younger Funes loads up his Lada sedan with sacks of arugula, carrots, and other produce and sells it to restaurants all over Havana. You need special licenses to sell privately in Cuba, and Funes has them.

Workers tend to crop seedlings under a protective nylon film at the Alamar organic farm, in an outlying Havana neighbourhood.

“Organic farming is not a mirage, and closing one-half of the sugar refineries was the first step toward our food independence,” said Funes Monzote ,wearing a straw hat and boots as he planted endive seedlings. While his father stresses the sins of Cuba’s agricultural past, seeing sugar dependence as one of the revolution’s wrong turns, the son looks instead at the promise and shortcomings of Cuba’s current, messy organic boom. He rails against farmers who claim falsely to be organic, treating their crops with chemicals while passing themselves off as organic to cooperatives and restaurants.

“I don’t think Cuba actually needs to produce more food. It needs to make better use of what it already produces and waste less,” he said. He and his 16 workers often hear visiting North Americans and Europeans fetishize Cuba and its organic farms—wrongly, in their opinion. The vast majority of Cuban farms are still “traditional,” they said, which means they use pesticides and synthetic fertilizers.

“It pisses me off when people talk about Cuba as if we’re some organic utopia,” said farmworker Maikel Márquez. When he’s not spreading manure on fields or pruning fruit trees on Funes Monzote’s farm, he’s studying agronomy at the National Agriculture University of Havana. He’s part of the first generation of entirely organic Cuban farmers. “People from abroad see us as this paradise of sustainable farming, but we’re not. We’re coming out of a very bad model of agriculture, to something better.” Ironically for a place known for revolutionary mystique, Cuba might be the place that takes the romantics out of organics.

Top photo: Ramón Herrera stands in front of the abandoned Camilo Cienfuegos sugar plant in Hershey, Cuba, where he worked until it closed in 2002. Produced with FERN, this article first appeared at The Guardian. All rights reserved. This article may not be reproduced without express permission from FERN. If you are interested in republishing or reposting this article, please contact info@thefern.org.