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Story Publication logo March 11, 2013

Sustainable Cuban Farming Model in a Gas-Driven World


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Farm workers at Organoponico Vivero Alamar, an organic, sustainable farm in Cuba can earn more than...

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Workers harvest lettuce and sell it fresh in a market just outside the gates of OVA. Tourists who pay to visit the farm are treated to huge, hearty buffets with leafy salads grown on the fields. Image by Kassondra Cloos. Cuba, 2013.

The farmers pour in after sunrise and leave before sunset. The workday is one to two hours shorter than a typical day for a government employee, depending on the season, and the pay is higher—much higher.

Organiponico Vivero Alamar (OVA) is an organic, sustainable farm just outside Havana, where its private business status allows farmers the freedom to make smart economic moves and attract the best and brightest farmers, scientists and researchers to improve daily operations. Visitors come from all over the world to see the farm that countless bloggers have praised for its high wages (compared to government jobs in Cuba) and other benefits.

Workers can take home fresh, organic produce like plantains, guavas, lettuce, tomatoes, taro, sweet potatoes, pineapples, mango and more, which OVA president and founder Miguel Salcines says contributes to maintaining a healthier populace. There are also on-site barber and manicure services, interest-free loans, daily meals cooked fresh from food the farmers have worked hard to produce, profit shares based on seniority and a strong community feeling that visitors find admirable and even surprising.

The classic American image of the streets of Cuba is a fairly accurate one—old cars and crumbling buildings. Havana is a city so locked in time it can be startling to see a citizen whip out a cell phone.

One government tour guide spoke extensively to the high demand and low supply of food. The government provides a small amount of food for each family based on the health needs of individuals, she said—meaning only some families receive milk while other families receive meat. It is difficult to earn enough to supplement the basic food allotment: The tour guide is paid only $13 a month because the government assumes she will earn tips. Even with tips, she says it's not enough to make ends meet. She has taken on a second job as a freelance English teacher.

Yet, unlike tour guides, OVA farmers make a decent living. And if Cuba can make farming profitable, why can't other countries?

There is no simple answer. The explanation starts with the realization that Cubans were forced into agricultural innovation by a very real need to feed a mass number of starving people, according to Elon University agro-ecology professor Steve Moore.

"There was a great set of circumstances that spawned that," he said. "When Russia pulled out, they had no more cheap oil and cheap resources, so they had to think of something real quick."

More food was needed, with fewer resources to produce it—leading to farming practices that avoided costs like excessive energy use and fertilizers.

In the United States, which has long struggled to keep its growers afloat, democracy and the freedoms afforded to private enterprise have not yet come to terms with better farming practices for various reasons. The most notable one is price, Moore said. He has studied farming extensively and says it's easier and, in the short term, cheaper, to throw fertilizer and fossil fuels at farming woes than it is to sit down and figure out how to do things better.

OVA sells its wares at a farm-front marketplace six days a week. As an urban farm, it's widely accessible to Cubans who don't own cars, and most of its fresh produce is sold out by the end of the day. Cuba imports a great deal of food, but there's a gap between imports and local production that makes food scarce and waste a social sin.

Moore, who was a long-time farmer before leaving his field to become a professor, understands this from experience. He and his wife sacrificed a great deal to keep their business going. Even if he would have preferred to keep food in his nearby community and cut down on transportation costs by selling food to local markets, it was significantly more profitable to travel great distances from their farm in Pennsylvania to sell larger amounts of produce at urban supermarket prices.

"We would sell about an hour and a half to two hours away and drive a truck down to the DC-Baltimore area," he said, "because we would get at least twice the price for it than we would in our own town."

Even though many Americans claim food costs are high, Moore maintains they're not. Americans aren't willing to spend a high proportion of their disposable income on food when it's dirt cheap to import out-of-season crops from other countries, and it can be near impossible for local farmers to compete with these prices. No one knows this better than Moore and his wife, who for more than a decade could not afford health insurance.

The vast majority of other farmers in the United States face similar financial troubles. The Environmental Protection Agency estimates that less than 1 percent of Americans call themselves farmers. Fewer than one in four farms makes more than $50,000 a year in gross revenue. In 2008, the Census Bureau found that net income related to farming activities was less than $10,000 per year. Most farm families need to supplement that with wages earned off the farm.

OVA, though, provides a community-style workplace with a good salary and benefits. Although wages are still meager when compared with salaries in more developed countries, they are two to three times higher than Cuba's government paychecks, which can be as little as the equivalent of $13 a month. On top of their salaries, farm workers also get a percentage of profits that increase with seniority, usually adding up to the equivalent of a few extra dollars every other week.

Jose Ramon Rey, who works to fatten the bulls OVA uses for natural fertilizer and sells to the tourist industry, said he wanted to work at the cooperative not just because he comes from a farm family, but also because of the benefits it provides.

"Economically, I feel better because I earn a good salary," he said. "In general, I cover all my family's expenses with the money I earn here."

Ramon Rey has worked at OVA for eight years and it's his only job, an increasingly uncommon phenomenon in Cuba.

The food grown at OVA stays within the country, and is diverse and completely sustainable. Everything is recycled and organic, unlike other farming practices around the world that rely on the ability to force crops to grow when nature would have it another way. As Moore says, farmers in many other parts of the world do not wait out inopportune weather or push back a growing season. Instead they spread tons of fertilizers to stay on schedule. It's cheap. And so is fossil fuel.

Moore predicts that farming won't significantly change for the better until the world is forced to reckon with the diminishing supply of nonrenewable resources that power the engines that transport food across scores of time zones before it hits the dinner table. It's cheaper to burn gas using machines to plow, plant, harvest and haul food than it is to sit down and think about how to more efficiently manage resources.

Under a dictatorship like the one in Cuba, change can be forced or necessitated overnight, he said. In a democracy, there's great freedom to choose the easy way out—but it has hidden costs for everyone along the way.



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