Cuba’s first generation of organic farmers wants to feed the island

In Cuba, a movement of rural, organic farms is trying to both feed the island’s people and heal its soil, writes Roger Atwood in FERN’s new story with The Guardian. In recent years, Cuba has been romanticized as an island full of urban farms, but in reality the government imports 60-80 percent of the nation’s food and farmers make abundant use of agro-industrial chemicals and synthetic fertilizers on their farms. Yet, an increasing number of growers are realizing the virtues of organic.

“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,” writes Atwood. “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.”

The island’s organic farms are small-scale — usually less than 100 acres. And many exist on former sugar plantations, one-half of which were shut down by the Cuban government after the fall of the Soviet bloc, since there was nowhere to sell the sugar. The end of Soviet trade set off a major hunger crisis in the early 1990s, inspiring the first farmers on the island to ask themselves how they could grow crops without Soviet chemicals and fertilizers.

But the majority of Cuba’s farmers still use conventional methods. And, as in many places, organic farmers in Cuba struggle to compete against conventional growers — the majority on the island.

“It pisses me off when people talk about Cuba as if we’re some organic utopia,” said farmworker Maikel Márquez. An agronomy student at National Agriculture University of Havana, he’s also 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.”