The Next Revolution

On the six-acre farm, rows of organic lettuce, tomatoes, and peppers soak up the new rain. Neat piles of compost lie on the sticky red clay soil. Workers in blue baseball hats and knee-high rubber boots hoe weeds and fill a wheelbarrow with freshly picked lettuce. And vendors sell herbs, grains, produce, ornamental plants, and condiments like vinegar and honey — all within reach of the gray concrete-block apartments, cars, bus-stops, and bustling population of eastern Havana.
The Vivero Alamar (vivero means “nursery”) is an urban farm. Along with thousands of others in Cuba, it directly serves its neighborhood without using chemical pesticides and fertilizers, or petroleum to transport crops. In doing so, it has helped answer a nagging question for many countries, including the US: What would happen if the chemical “inputs” on which conventional agriculture depends suddenly disappeared? According to Cuba’s experience with farms like the Vivero Alamar, there is little to worry about. “The project began as a result of survival needs,” Miguel Salcines Lopez, president of the five-year-old farm, told the visiting Terrain reporter, “but has become very good business.”
The Alamar farm grew out of an agricultural crisis.
Until the late 1980s, most Cuban agriculture was locked up in massive, highly industrialized, state-run plantations. Sugarcane for export dominated the landscape, covering three times the farmland devoted to food. Each year the country used an average of 1.3 million tons of chemical fertilizers, spent $80 million on pesticides, and imported 60% of its food, along with 36% of its animal feed and most of its petroleum, from the Soviet bloc.
Then the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, $8 billion in trade suddenly disappeared, and the United States proceeded to tighten its trade embargo. “Unexpectedly,” says Dr. Fernando Funes, secretary of the government’s Cuban Organic Farming Group, “a ‘modern’ and industrialized agricultural system faced food production with more than a 50% drop in the availability of [agricultural] inputs.” Tractors and other agricultural machinery lay idle in the fields, wanting for petroleum and missing parts. Without pesticides and fertilizers, yields on large monocrop state farms plummeted. According to government figures, the average daily caloric intake by the Cuban population dropped by as much as 30%.
In what was known as the “Special Period in a time of peace,” the Cuban government transformed its export-based agriculture, implementing alternative agricultural techniques on a massive scale. As Fidel Castro put it in 1991: “Cuban scientists will create resources that will one day be more valuable than sugarcane. Our problems must be resolved without feedstock, fertilizers, or fuel.”
Drawing on 20 years of research by its own scientists, the country invested in alternative farming techniques like polycropping, livestock/crop integration, biofertilizers, and biological pest control. In the beginning, results were mixed. The country’s small, privately owned farms produced well using the innovative techniques. But sustainable agriculture ran into problems on Cuba’s 10,000-acre government farms, where state workers performed specialized tasks with little connection to the land or incentive to innovate.
“In general, it’s only possible to farm a large area on a recipe basis, where a technician can direct spraying or plowing of a large number of acres,” says Peter Rosset, co-director of Oakland’s Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, which has closely followed Cuba’s efforts. “Sustainable agriculture is based on a much more detailed knowledge of the land: where good drainage is, what area needs more organic matter, which area has a potential pest outbreak.”
So, in 1993, the Cuban government broke up 80% of all state-owned farmland. In the smaller Basic Units of Cooperative Production (UBPCs), farm workers could use the land rent-free as long as they met production quotas for key crops, which they were required to sell to the state. Workers elected management teams and bought buildings, tools, and other items with low-interest state loans. Once the farm met its quotas, it could sell the surplus at government-run farmers’ markets, an unprecedented economic incentive. Although Cuba still uses conventional farming techniques for certain sectors such as large-scale rice farms, the majority of its agriculture is now produced organically or semi-organically. “Nationally, Cuba is using around one-third of the chemicals previously used,” says Rosset.
But even the new cooperative state farms could not resolve the lack of Soviet-supplied petroleum for transportation. Unable to get food to the cities, Cuba encouraged cities to produce their own. “[Urban farms were] very important, one of the major ways they overcame the food crisis,” says Rosset. “It started by people spontaneously planting, but very quickly the government realized this was a major area of potential.”
By 1995, the government was offering vacant state-owned urban space to anyone who could grow food; it also provided potential urban farmers with water, technical assistance, access to subsidized seed and farm implements, and other resources. Thousands of urban gardens like Alamar have sprung up in Cuban cities. According to government figures, over 8,000 intensive gardens yielded almost 900,000 tons of production in 1999, while 104,087 small parcel and patio gardens covering 8,880 acres in the city of Havana produced even more. Nationwide, urban gardens supply 60% of the country’s vegetables, according to the British Guardian newspaper.
The gardens met a need for cheap fresh produce in city neighborhoods.
Since just after the revolution in 1959, all Cubans have received a basic food-ration for staples, which they can purchase at government stores. In the 1980s, the stores generally offered sufficient quantity, “but not a great variety or quality,” says Rosset. “Fresh vegetables and herbs were not readily available [at the government stores]. At the beginning of the Special Period, people still had their ration cards, but many times government stores were completely out of stock.” Driven by desperate demand for food, a black market for produce quickly sprang up. Between 1993 and 1994, the Cuban government opened farmers’ markets, where the new cooperative farms could sell their surplus produce. But these sell at market rates, often with 100% mark-ups. By 1995, urban gardens began filling a niche for low-income Havanans.
Under no obligation to sell to the state, urban gardens and cooperatives like the Vivero Alamar cut out both the middleman and transportation costs, selling directly to the local community, usually at prices 20% lower than those at farmers’ markets. Despite the affordable food at urban farms, the farmers’ markets’ and government supermarkets are still doing well. “[Competition is] not a problem,” says Rosset. “Urban farms are far and away the cheapest, but don’t necessarily have the variety of the farmers’ markets or the supermarkets.” The Vivero Alamar sells all its produce on-site or directly to worksites and schools, bypassing the farmers’ markets. “It’s a political issue,” says Lopez, “to meet the people’s need for cheap food. Because we are part of the community, we cannot mark up prices in the same way.”
The line outside the Vivero Alamar’s market stand attests to the popularity of the place locals call the organoponico (urban farm with added soil nutrients). “We eat a lot of salad and fresh vegetables, so a good portion of my family’s food comes from the organiponico,” says Alamar resident Rosaurio, who shops here every weekend for his family of four. “Six years ago, we had to buy food from the regular market, but the organiponico is much cheaper with a greater variety of products.” Waiting in line, another resident named Yagalin says that she does not buy anything at the farmers’ markets. “Everything at the organoponico is very fresh and high quality, as well as being cheap. It’s marvelous! My husband and mother both love shopping here.”
The Vivero Alamar is also good business. In its five years, the farm has grown from just five workers to 42 and now produces 15 to 20 different products for the 30,000-person Alamar neighborhood, as well as surrounding communities. Last year it brought in a record 1.2 million pesos, almost $45,000. Workers at the Vivero Alamar have an average salary of 1,000 pesos per month — about twice the average Cuban’s.
To protect densely populated areas, use of chemicals in the urban gardens is prohibited. Farms like the Vivero Alamar rely on biofertilizers like cow manure and earthworm casts, and techniques like crop rotation and polycropping to maintain soil fertility. To control pest and disease outbreaks, the Cuban government has devoted significant resources to the development of biological controls, creating 280 reproduction centers for biological control agents throughout the country. These produce enough parasitic flies, Bacillus thuringiensis (Bt), and beneficial nematodes and fungi for the entire country, providing service to the large state farms, individual family gardens, and everything in between.
But the earth isn’t the only one who benefits from these changes. Before the Special Period, Cubans were accustomed to a largely European or Soviet diet of beef, milk, and wheat, with few fresh green vegetables. The population now consumes more fresh produce, through simple lack of choice —  and they are learning to like it. “One of the good things about the blockade is that people are eating better,” says Lopez, noting that the new diets are being reinforced by new government nutrition education programs. “Before, doctors always told sick people to eat more meat,” says Lopez. “Now they say, ‘You have hypertension — eat vegetables.’”

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