Cuba Organica

Summer 1997

By Jane Lamb

Agricultural challenges in Third World countries, particularly in neighboring Latin America, have long been a special concern of MOFGA members. Usually members work to improve food production for malnourished populations by various means, ranging from university-level research to sister city programs to just plain sharing of organic know-how.

Board member Laura Merrick, an assistant professor of research in the sustainable agriculture program at the University of Maine, has been working with farmers in central Mexico for years, studying the bio-genetic dynamics of intercropping maize and squash. Karen and Paul Volckhausen are active in the Bangor Sister City exchange with Carasque, El Salvador. Jean English coordinates the Waldo County Sister City Project with San Nicolas, Nicaragua. Pam Bell, a former editor of The MOF&G, has worked in Nicaragua in connection with her degree in international studies and has traveled in Costa Rica and El Salvador with PICA (Peace Through International Community Action). Martha Gottlieb is a frequent visitor to Mexico, the Amazon and Peru where she gathers indigenous seeds, which she brings home to propagate and donate to the Seed Savers Exchange. Peggy and Matthew Strong, on an extended camping vacation to Central America, found themselves quite by accident giving a talk on MOFGA to a local farmers’ cooperative in Honduras, and visited an experimental organic farm run by the government in Guatemala. “They were trying to promote using less or no pesticides, showing what you could grow the old way,” Matt says. “Down there, pesticide use is rampant. They were having some success [with alternatives].”

Thus it was inevitable that MOFGA was well represented among the 40 participants in the Sustainable Agriculture & Community In Cuba trip in January with Richard Rudoph, the “trip of a lifetime,” as many of them put it. What they found there was not quite what they were looking for or had been led to expect. “I went down there expecting there would be more to learn about organic technology,” Paul Volckhausen said. “Their organic methods are pretty much the same as ours. But it was their whole sustainable food system that was eye-opening.”

From a lot of literature he had received, Chris Hurley assumed that the Cubans had a very high level of organic technique, which he didn’t find. “I saw plenty of cases where they weren’t even contour plowing,” he said. Articles in Small Farmers Journal and a pamphlet titled “The Greening of the Revolution” portrayed a Cuba leading the world in organic agriculture, he said. “I think that amidst the desire to have a free and independent Cuba, and the need among many people to criticize [U.S. government] policy, they tend to gloss over some of the realities.”

Frank Drummond, a professor of insect ecology at the University of Maine in Orono, was fairly disillusioned. “We got a lot of hype on Cuba’s organic agriculture, but they were using hard fungicides and rodenticides.” Even so, he found that they were still quite a bit farther along than this country in using organic methods for insect control. “It’s really not organic agriculture, but certainly a hybrid. Out of economic necessity, they have gone to organic [pest control] methods when they can actually manufacture them themselves.”

As Chris pointed out, it took a while for the group to take in the Cuban definition of organic. “Basically, they can be organic up to a point, but they can’t afford to lose a crop. They’re trying to feed their people They don’t have the luxury of going to the supermarket if the local organic farmer fails. They don’t have a customer demand for organic, they have a customer demand for food.” As many participants noted, priorities in Cuba’s socialist system are food, shelter, health and education. Profit, if any, can be considered only after all these needs are met.

Sustainability Is the Goal

When the participants I talked with began to understand the Cuban “organic” rationale, they found much to alleviate their initial disappointment. Bambi Jones marveled at how much the Cubans have accomplished in the seven years since the Soviet system collapsed and left Cuba isolated from the trading partners that had supplied it during 30 years of United States embargo. “One [surprising] statistic,” she said, “is that the city of Havana, with 10 million people, produces 15 percent of its own food within the city. Almost all of it is in raised beds, but we did see one vacant lot of about five acres where they were growing directly in the soil, around piles of debris they had cleaned up. They were growing food for 100 people in the neighborhood. In other places that used to be fancy residential districts, there were farm stands [on the site] selling ‘organoponics,’ which refers to the raised beds and sprinkler systems.”

“There are obviously a lot of communities around Havana to sell produce [to the city],” Frank Drummond observed, “but essentially [smaller towns] are closed system communities. They use a lot of on-farm resources, produce their own compost and reuse organic waste for compost or animal feed.” Despite his misgivings about the use, when necessary, of what chemicals are available, Frank was impressed with the degree of biological insect pest management. “They produce two types of fungi that kill insects,” he said. Not harmful to plants or people, they are sprayed on the fields and are distributed to coops and independent farmers. “They also make their own Bt [Bacillus thuringiensis] and produce Trichogramma wasps. Biological controls are produced in 20 factories all over the country. It’s a good infrastructure,” he continued. “The factories employ people in the communities and it’s all locally based. I think they’ve been able to produce it on an economical scale so even if the blockade were lifted, there’s hope at least that biological insect control will be maintained.”

Frank was cheered by the government focus on repopulating the countryside, getting people back to farms by providing free land, reversing the trend of immigration to the cities. A lot of the farms, he noted, are more than businesses, but part of the community way of life. “The big cooperative farms had school systems, clinics, hospitals, coops for building houses. It was pretty interesting to see farming integrated into the whole community. When you think about it, it’s sort of the essence of sustainable agriculture, very different from here.”

Women’s Organic Coop

The highlight of the trip for many was the Mariana Grajales Women’s Organic Cooperative in the Santa Clara District, about three hours east of Havana. “I was extremely impressed,” said Frank Drummond, “at how well organized it was, at their work ethic, at how their farming is an integral part of their spirituality, their whole life.”

“It’s just the most beautiful, well-tended, nurtured piece of land we saw,” said Chris Hurley. Completely organic, chemical free, the coop has existed for over a decade. It was started by women who have been managing it ever since. The permanent raised beds with cement block walls are all hand-worked by brigades of 16 women who practice intercropping, succession planting and crop rotation. They crop all year long, using shade covers over the beds to keep the heat off in summer.

Like other coops, the Women’s Cooperative has a contract with the state. Unlike the feudal tradition in soviet collectives or sharecropping in capitalist countries, in Cuba the coops feed their own families first, then fill their state production quota. Any surplus after that they can sell on the free market, for U.S. dollars and other foreign currency. “That’s new,” Chris reported. “The Women’s collective received us so well. In just a matter of hours we were friends. It was the best part of the tour. We got to spend enough time there to make it worthwhile. They sang us a song of farewell as we were leaving. All 40 people were really moved.”

Bambi Jones, who speaks a little Spanish, was hoping to return to Cuba in March to spend a week working at the Women’s Cooperative at the invitation of one of the members. “If I live with this woman for a week in her home, not only can I work on the farm, but also get some insights from people and find out more in depth. Realistically, I want to find out how they feel about their system.”


“Cuba is an interesting socialist country that has accomplished some incredible things in taking care of people,” Bambi continued. “They have a view about humanity which I think is pretty unique in this world. It seems to be widespread, and people are willing to work for the common good, as opposed to their own personal gain. It’s pretty impressive.” She and others spoke of the friendliness and optimism of the Cuban people.

“It was fun meeting people on the streets of Havana,” Chris Hurley said. “They were amazed that we were Americans, not Germans. They wanted to talk and to practice their English.” Chris had a first-hand opportunity to see socialist medicine at work when he was floored by an intestinal bug. “I got to see the inside of a hospital. What was interesting was there was no surprise at my being a foreigner. I didn’t feel like: ‘Oh, here’s a sick foreigner. We have to care for him.’ It was immediate acceptance. I was seen right away by a doctor who looked to be about 22. He was very good, did all the right things as far as I was concerned.” Chris had been fearful of the TV images of Third World hospitals and was amazed to find everything very clean and proficient, despite the lack of high-tech equipment and of antibiotics or even pill bottles that every American takes for granted. His presciption, wrapped in brown paper toweling, was picked up at the farmacia right outside the hospital by the doctor himself. And there was no charge for anything. There are 60,000 doctors for 11 million people, all trained in Cuban universities.

“The country as a whole is doing very well,” said Peter Bondeson, who raises MOFGA-certified organic potatoes in Aroostook County. “Mr. Helms and Mr. Burton may find the joke’s on them. There’s only one drawback. People are poor. They work for about ten bucks a month. They’re guaranteed a food ration and housing. It isn’t fancy but nobody is sleeping on the street.” Peter saw no homeless or obese or starving people, and no crime. “We walked the streets at all hours of the night and nobody felt threatened. It was certainly different from going downtown in Boston or New York.” Peter has visited most of the Caribbean islands over the last 30 years but this was his first trip to Cuba. “My impression of Cuba is that it’s one of the most beautiful islands down there. Fidel has done wonders for it, reforested it, made it sustainable. No other country in the world has done it. Mexico certainly hasn’t. [The trip] was an eye-opener. I think a lot of people thought the worst but found the better. The worst wasn’t true. The fight is between two political countries, not two bunches of people.”

Freedom Is a Relative Thing

MOFGA participants were ambivalent about the trade-offs the Cuban people have made between personal freedom and freedom from want. Peter pointed to the lack of hard money for farming equipment making necessary the use of hand labor and oxen instead of tractors. (Chris Hurley discovered that these draft animals were not oxen at all but actually uncastrated bulls. At first he couldn’t understand why the animals are controlled by reins attached to a nose ring and handled from a greater distance than is familiar to Maine fair-goers. “I couldn’t understand the need for this until I looked under one of them,” he said with some amusement.)

Peter wasn’t sure that ordinary Cubans know what’s going on. “They just think it’s business as usual and seem to be happy. Some of the more educated ones know they’re working for a dictator. If everybody was allowed to leave at will a lot would, but since they’re not allowed, they’ve got to stay there and make it work.”

Chris saw it differently. “The most outstanding thing, overall, was that amidst all the adversity and hardship of the embargo, people are generally overwhelmingly optimistic about their future. They’re very proud of having survived the onslaught of American imperialism. When I came back people were asking ‘Are they trying to overthrow Castro? Do they resent what he’s done to them?’ Because of their high level of education, they feel he’s not to blame for the hardship. They know that some of the extreme measures are necessary. They don’t like them but they understand that people are generally so much better off today than before the revolution that there’s great support for what he’s doing and they’re willing to suffer. I think their positive attitude was remarkable, given the fact they have food rationing, no building materials and trade was cut off 80 percent when the Soviet Union disappeared, and they’re even further restricted by the Helms-Burton Act.”

“I think it’s a successful revolution in some ways,” said Charles Fitzgerald. “They were in a sort of no-exit situation. There’s no question it’s a paternalistic dictatorship with a lot of control, but people are the government. Everything is done by committees, meetings. Every place has meeting rooms. But there’s a lot of direction from the top.” Charlie pointed out that the literacy rate is very high, nearly 100 percent. “It was obvious, talking with people, that Cubans are thinkers. They speak freely, with great eloquence. I don’t think we were restricted in what we did or who we talked to. There’s a level of sophistication and understanding of what’s going on in the capitalist countries that are exploiting the Third World. “

Organic Agriculture’s Future

What would happen if the United States embargo on Cuba were lifted? “The real question you have to ask is if they weren’t under such duress, would they continue with organic farming?” Charlie Fitzgerald said. “If chemicals were available, would they go back to using them? That’s a question they’re looking at, too. I don’t know. I think you could see that in the little neighborhood urban gardens a lot of education is going on. There are signs describing how the vegetables are raised, cleaned. That’s the whole way of the entire socialist economy.” Cubans are aware of how chemicals are taking over other Latin American countries, he said. “In the remote hillsides of Chiapas [Mexico], the entire peasant economy has been infiltrated with information on chemical pesticides. I saw little kids spraying toxic pesticides without wearing any protective gear. From what I understand, Cuba wasn’t pushing hard toward organic agriculture till the early 1990s. They’re probably further along than we are, but we have the availability of chemicals. They were suddenly cut off from them and out of necessity moved toward organic. But I think there’s also a strong consciousness [in Cuba] that doing it this way is better for their health, food is safer, and that it can be done. I think the whole attitude in that country is that before profit comes the primary need of feeding people, that taking care of health, education and shelter comes first.”

Hard Cash Considerations

Frank Drummond pointed out that Cubans are living under two economies, the socialist collective that provides everything but hard cash, and the tourist industry that provides U.S. dollars and other foreign currency. Interestingly, as Paul Volckhausen mentioned, part of the government effort to develop a sustainable food system includes rewarding farmers for productive farming. If they grow more than the amount negotiated in a contract with the agricultural ministry, good farmers can sell the surplus on “what they call the free market,” which gives them a little extra income. Be that as it may, the fact that anyone involved in the tourist industry can make a year’s salary in one week has Cuba struggling with how to handle these extremes, Frank said. “If left unchecked, it could wreck the whole economy and have a worse impact than any Jesse Helms can cause. They’re trying to somehow limit the extent that U.S. dollars control their economy.”

“It’s going to be really interesting,” Bambi Jones observed. “You can look at the blockade and think it has probably been responsible for a lot that’s good. Without it, maybe they wouldn’t have started in organic agriculture, but the bottom line is the blockade is bad and it’s wrong. People we talked to were very attuned to the situation. ‘We’ll cheer the night we hear the blockade is lifted and start worrying the next morning after the party is over,’ ” they told her.

Cuba’s Organic Future

Richard Rudolph points to a hopeful note in his article. An agricultural educator, responding to his question about the future of organic agriculture, asked why would Cuba want to spend hard currency, always in short supply, on foreign chemicals when they know how to make their own organic compost and biological pesticides and have already dealt with the alternative approach. Even more encouraging, he said, is that Cuba’s national association of organic farmers has invited people from other developing countries and even the United States, to its conference. There’s even the possibility that Cuba might grow such crops as bananas organically for export at premium prices.

Several people said they would like to go back to Cuba. Richard is considering another group trip for January, 1988, but don’t call him. He was overwhelmed with phone calls the last time. (Those with genuine interest should write to him care of Sustainable Agriculture Project, 55 River Road, Steep Falls, Maine 04085.) Bambi was hoping to go back to Cuba this spring and promised to report if she made it. Chris would definitely love to go back to spend more time and get further away from Havana.

Paul saw a different possibility. He talked with a woman on the trip who was working in Haiti. “It sounds like you could go to Haiti and, rather than learn about the system, you could try to help them create a system. This woman would love to have a group come down to Haiti and work with her. It would be harder in some ways, but a lot is the same. They’re so poor they can’t afford pesticides. The landscape is devastated from deforestation and erosion. Haiti needs a lot of work, but you couldn’t try to work with the government. This woman has developed a school in one little area. You could do a lot more working with farmers in one village, rather than trying to look at it on a huge scale as in Cuba. Cuba is leading all kinds of educational workshops for other Latin American countries.

“I would love to do something, maybe through PICA. Bangor has a very active sister city relationship with Carasque, El Salvador. Delegations go down from Bangor and some have come here from Carasque. To go down and see what Cuba has done is one thing. There are things the farmers there need – computers, books. In terms of going down and doing something, they’re already doing it. To actually do something is much more effective on an individual basis.”

Jane Lamb, formerly of Brunswick, Maine, now lives in California.

Scroll to Top
Sign up to receive our weekly newsletter of happenings at MOFGA.