Published January 31, 2013
Cuba’s past and present come together in Alamar, a suburb just 10 minutes outside of Old Havana. Rows of corn, carrots and cauliflower grow out of red-tinged earth. Leather-skinned men follow oxen as they haul tree branches and women push tiny lettuce seeds into planters. But beyond the thatched roofs of the farm buildings and the rusted windmills and beyond the street full of cars sometimes decades old, a row of gray Soviet bloc apartments stand against the blue Caribbean sky.
The place is Organopnico Vivero Alamar (OVA), and it’s an organic and sustainable farm organized in a cooperative model. Miguel Salcines, the president of the cooperative, founded OVA in 1997.
“It was a desperate situation to produce food, but the leadership here in Cuba decided right now that we either produce food or we starved to death,” he said.
Out in the farm’s fields, organic and sustainable practices can be seen in all the different farm activities. On the back few acres, king grass grows to feed the cattle and oxen that live in a basic stable. Their waste is collected to make the fertilizer and soil used across OVA, a mixture of rice shells and humus produced in shaded troughs on site, full of dirt and waste. It is kept at a precise humidity and filled with hundreds of thousands of earthworms that turn the mixture into something rich and fertile.
And when those earthworms have done their job, OVA sells them to local fishermen. OVA also sells the meat of its waste producers (those cows), mostly to businesses that cater to tourists, since most Cubans can’t afford beef. The farm also grows rabbits and goats for waste and to feed its employees.
Jose Ramon Rey, 50, is in charge of the larger livestock, the cattle and oxen.
“I’ve been here for around six years and I have always performed in this area because I am a farmer,” he said. “I come from a farming family and I enjoy working here.”
Every year, 3 million seedlings are planted at OVA and moved into large mesh-covered greenhouses where they grow into sprouts. When those sprouts are strong, they are planted, strategically, around the farm. Green onions sit next to carrots and single rows of corn line the cauliflower patch. Each plant is situated near others to maximize growth and minimize pest invasion.
“We produce organic vegetables that are not certified but we know they are organic because we don’t use any type of chemical products,” said Norma Ramon Castillo, the plants engineer at OVA.
Instead, the farm relies on natural pesticides and fungi to protect the growing food items, like that made from mushrooms or through the planting of marigold bushes throughout the farm.
OVA also has fruit trees all over its property, two greenhouses dedicated to growing medicinal plants, and an entire area dedicated to “plantas ornamentales” (or house plants). There’s also a market on the edge of the property that sells to the community of Alamar, where the majority of OVA workers live.
And it’s not just fresh products up for sale. OVA dries its own vegetables and herbs to bottle and sell. In the back corner of the property, women sterilize recycled Corona beer bottles while a man stands stirring bubbling pots of tomato paste to be sealed with a new cap and sold.
In another back corner, Cuba’s most famous crop grows and sways in the breeze: sugar cane. Men with machetes stand knee-deep in the fallen stalks, shucking off the leaves and tough outer green edges to reach the fibrous, juicy flesh.
Since its opening in 1997, OVA has grown from four workers to 180 and from 800 square meters of mostly leafy vegetables to 25 acres that produce 300 tons of vegetables a year. The yearly revenue has increased from 100,000 Cuban pesos a year to 3 million Cuban pesos (more than $113,000).
But the lushness and level of productivity of this farm aren’t the only things that make it a success in the eyes of Salcines, its president.
OVA is organized as a Unidad Base de Produccion Cooperativa, a style of cooperative implemented in the mid-1990s by the Cuban government as a means of agrarian reform. Large state farms were broken up and given to groups like OVA, which own everything but the land, according to Castillo, who has been part of OVA for 14 years.
In return for this type of organization, Salcines said, the farm owes a small percentage of what it produces to the Cuban government. OVA also sells just over 10 percent of what it produces specifically to the tourism industry, particularly mint leaves, a key ingredient in the mojito, the de facto national drink of Cuba.
Castillo explained that when the farm makes money, 30 percent of the revenue goes back into the farm for operating costs, but the other 70 percent is divided into shares, which are paid out to the 180 workers. The longer a person has been working at OVA, the greater their number of shares. This dividend is in addition to a base salary that can be three times the amount a government job would pay. While this may only be the equivalent to a few hundred U.S. dollars every year, this is a small fortune to Cubans, most of whom would consider themselves lucky if they made more than $12 USD in a month (the amount of a well-paid government salary).
The workers also attend weekly meetings to vote on decisions that affect the farm and its operations. And this is just the beginning.
“The offers we have today are really attractive,” Castillo said. “Everyone wants to work here.”
The farm also gives its employees interest-free loans, free hairdressing and manicure services and provides breakfast and lunch, made in the farm’s kitchen with food grown just feet from the stoves on which it is cooked.
“The longer we’re here, we realize we can do more things,” Salcines said. “But we can say precisely that the cooperative is going to raise the living standards of (the workers’) families.”
It is a traditional soviet within a socialist country, a throwback to Cuba’s farming roots surrounded by “modern” housing, where tour groups armed with iPhones and the latest Nikons marvel at the old cars reserved for parades and auto shows back in their home countries. Every month, the farm plays host to dozens of these tourist groups from across the globe. They tour the facilities and eat a lunch prepared in the farm’s kitchen. They come from across the globe to learn about sustainable and organic farming practices, for entertainment’s sake or to carry their knowledge back to their own institutions, farms or just their personal gardens.
But for some of the workers at OVA, life on the farm is about more than producing as much as possible as cleanly as it can be done or teaching others how to do the same.
In the early morning light, Marisol Formiga Hurtado, 43, walks among the raised beds of vegetables. An employee at the farm, she is wearing an army-green jumpsuit, floppy brimmed hat and gloves caked with dirt. In a light voice, she said she sees something interesting and beautiful in everything through her work.
“Especially when, for example, you plant a seed and then that seed germinates and you see the plant grow,” she said. “And in a blink of an eye, you suddenly see the fruit coming out, so it’s amazing, no?”
Hurtado was trained to be a doctor, but her own health problems forced her to reconsider her career path, and she chose to work at the farm, among the flowers and fresh air.
“This is a job of love, of dedication, of consistency and good,” she said. “I feel good doing it.
Note: The interviews included in this article were conducted in Spanish then translated to English by staff members at El Centro de Español at Elon University in Elon, NC.