Sunday, May 16, 2010

Cuba Diaries: Day 2 - Pinar del Rio

Here's the second installment on my trip to Cuba to study their urban & suburban agriculture and agroecology. I will be posting these daily for the next several days so please check in regularly to hear about the entire trip. In today's installment, my group traveled to see a few farms & gardens in the western-most province of Cuba, Pinar del Rio.

Day 2: Pinar del Rio

Day 2 began at 6:30am. I felt almost as if Cuba was in another dimension of reality from the world I was accustomed to, and it did not occur to me that, naturally, as Cuba is just south of Florida, it is on Eastern Standard Time. Cuba’s 6:30am was my 3:30am. It must have been adrenaline and fear of oversleeping that got me up when my room mate’s alarm went off. She was not only a food writer but also a second degree black belt in karate and she wanted to fit in some exercise during the trip. I agreed to join her for a walk on the “malacón” – the 7 km walkway along Havana’s coast.

As we walked, the sun came up, and I took pictures, thinking of my friend Eddie (who appreciates sunrises and sunsets like no one else I know). As you can see from the pictures, it was quite a show the sun put on for us that morning as we walked along. To one side, we saw Cubans fishing and even swimming in the ocean. I saw a few men catch fish, but they were small. Instead of throwing the small fish back, they kept them on their hooks as bait. On our other side, we witnessed Havana’s morning traffic, which was nearly nonexistent. The road was sparsely populated with cars, buses, and bikes. Not all of the cars were the 1950’s era models I anticipated when coming to Cuba, but many were. As a child of the 1980’s who has rarely ever seen cars from the 1950’s, the only frame of reference I had for the cars was The Flintstones and I half expected to see Cuban feet running along below the cars a la Fred Flintstone.


After our walk, we joined the group for breakfast at the hotel’s buffet. It seemed to me that the hotel was catering to Europeans with its selection of cheeses and cold cuts for breakfast and perhaps to North Americans with its handful of breakfast cereals. Aside from that, they had tropical fruit juices (papaya, guava, mango, and orange), a selection of tropical fruit, a selection of croissants and other pastries, and white bread for toast. There was a man making fresh crepes, another making pancakes, and a third making omelets to order. Unfortunately, these wonderful efforts were buffered by the absence of maple syrup or popular crepe fillings. Both pancakes and crepes came with your choice of chocolate, caramel, or strawberry syrups or honey. The buffet also offered a number of seemingly random choices like brussel sprouts (weren’t those leftover from dinner?), chickpeas, and even salad bar items. The highlight of the meal was Cuban coffee, so strong that it was still dark after I filled half the cup with milk.

The group met in the lobby at 8am to leave for the day’s tour. Today we would head to the far western tip of the island – Pinar del Rio. The province was known in Cuba for growing the best tobacco, but we would visit only vegetable and fruit farms, including an “organipónico,” a Cuban agricultural operation that I was dying to see (largely because I had no clue what the term meant even though it was presumably the organipónicos that made Cuba’s agricultural system so wonderful). Once on the bus, I realized the impracticality of having a name like Jill in a Spanish-speaking country. I asked our guide to give me a Spanish name and someone in the seat ahead of me nominated the name “Mariposa” (Butterfly). It stuck. While it’s entirely ridiculous to wander around Cuba calling myself Butterfly, at least my stepkids will get a kick out of it when I tell them once I return home. And it made life a lot easier for our Spanish-speaking friends, including a few Cubans and a few Columbians who joined us on our trip.

The trip from Havana to Pinar del Rio took a few hours. We started by passing beautiful, grand houses in Havana but soon the landscape faded into pasture and farmland. Where one would have seen cornfields in the midwestern United States, in Cuba we saw fields of sugar cane. They informed us that the sugar industry was much larger before the start of the “Special Period” in late 1989. Out of necessity, much of the land devoted to sugar cane was converted to domestic food production.

About halfway to Pinar del Rio, we stopped for a bathroom and coffee break. The rest stop was indicative of Cuba’s burgeoning tourism industry. In a country where people have nearly nothing – only the necessities with very little of the “stuff” we Americans consider necessities – the relatively new tourism industry was fumbling to provide all of the kitschy souvenirs tourists buy. Did they not understand how tourism worked in other countries, or did they simply lack the materials to manufacture and provide the requisite snowglobes, spoons, and other items tourists buy on trips? Aside from a plethora of Cuba and Che T-shirts, the rest stop offered some art, woodcarved hummingbirds, post cards, keychains, mugs, and a few other items. I considered getting a T-shirt for each member of the family but I stopped myself, questioning how much we need, given the overwhelming amount of stuff we already have. Instead, I got another heavenly cup of Cuban café con leche, which this time came with a stick of sugarcane in it. Sign me up as a fan of sugarcane. Yum.

The rest stop
Margaret with a Tropical Drink
We saw this plant at the rest stop. They used to plant it around slave plantations because the plant moves when you touch it and they could use it to track which way the slaves went if they ran away.
Once in Pinar del Rio, we began with a state-owned Organipónico called “Primero de Mayo” (May 1st), named after Cuba's Labor Day. To me, the name evoked communism, as the Chinese often name things after yearless dates as well. Over and over, I would see things in Cuba that reminded me of China and wonder if they were characteristics of communism or purely coincidental similarities between the two countries.

May 1 Organiponico

As it turns out, a Cuban “Organipónico” is an agricultural operation with raised beds. The beds are protected on the outside by stones or a type of white boards and the beds are filled with a 50/50 mixture of manure and soil. Each bed is very long but only a meter wide, with aisles in between them. Often, there are plants like marigolds, basil, sorghum, and corn planted on the outside of the beds to deter pests. Inside the beds are one or more types of plants, often intercropped with the two or more species alternating along the entire bed. Some of the beds were covered with partial shade cloth, to spare the crops from the full heat of the Cuban sun. Others used pole beans growing up a frame to shade the crops below it. Around the entire organipónico, you often find fruit trees. In this case, May 1 Organipónico was surrounded with four varieties of banana trees, mostly a variety they call “Donkey Bananas.”

Cucumbers and Onions
Lettuce planted among beans with chives on the end
Nice beet!
Carrots growing with tomatoes
Peppers and irrigation tubing
Onions and beets
Sorghum grown at the edge of the beds as a physical barrier to pests
Cuba's strange spinach
More spinach
Several plants growing together with wooden frames to climb
Emilio, a Cuban ag expert
Green beans
Flowering dill, good for attracting beneficial insects
Banana tree
Donkey Bananas
Banana blossoms

It’s difficult to separate the agricultural details of the Cuban system from the more organizational, Communist ones. Obviously nature works the same in both Cuba and the U.S. but Communism does not apply back home. This particular Organiponico provided vegetables to a maternity home and sold the rest to the community. They paid one peso per square meter to the government as rent each month (a total of 1390 pesos) and after paying that plus other expenses (water, electricity, manure, seeds), the 10 workers divided all of the profits among themselves as their salaries. They told us they were required to produce 20 kg of food per square meter each year, which equates to 1.5 to 2 kg per square meter each month. I do not know if this was a production quota set by the government or merely the amount required for them to pay their own bills and salaries.

While the Communist model cannot be recreated in the U.S. (nor should it be now that I’ve had ample time to reflect on the pros and cons of the Cuban system of government), the urban agricultural model can and should be copied. This particular organipónico was 0.5 hectares and it was one of 38 organipónicos in the city. It was one of the first organipónicos and it was founded in 1992 in the height of the Special Period. They grew 18 crops and they also produced their own compost and worm castings. We caught them in transition between the winter and summer seasons, and we saw them growing carrots, chard, beets, lettuce, onions, peppers, bananas, chives, basil, sorghum, marigolds, beans, cucumbers, tomatoes, and spinach. To run the organipónico, they had 10 workers: seven to do the farm work, one to manage the operation, one to do the accounting, and one to sell the produce. They also received occasional training from local agroecology experts in various subjects, a concept that seems similar to the U.S. extension system except that it focused entirely on agroecology and I believe it’s much more robust than the U.S. extension system.

Strangely enough, they introduced us to basil and chives as “medicinal plants.” Basil is good for the stomach they told us, and in addition to its medicinal properties, chives are great for pest control. They make a spray by mixing chives and water to spray on the plants to control pests. Another pest control method involved soda bottles laid on their sides with their top halves cut open. Inside the bottle, they mixed molasses and water to attract and then drown bugs. This was just a small example of the incredible inventiveness we witnessed over and over again on the farms we visited.

Basil, chives, and sorghum grown at the edge of the beds
Pest control in a soda bottle
One of their top producing crops (cucumber) is also one of the most problematic. Cucumbers are incredibly sensitive to mildew, they told us. At the May 1 Organipónico, they used a mildew resistant variety of cucumber to cope with the problem. I asked if they used hybrid or open-pollinated seeds and they told me that here they mostly used open pollinated seeds. That seemed to be a standard everywhere, particularly because we witnessed many farmers saving their own seeds.

From May 1 Organipónico, we headed to lunch and then a second farm (“La Cabaña”). This one was privately owned by a man named Daniel. As we neared the farm, the bus suddenly stopped. After an exchange in Spanish, they told us that the rain (a slight drizzle) prevented the bus from going any closer to the farm and we had the option of walking half a kilometer to get there. We walked up a dirt road, passing rundown houses, Cuban families, and quite a bit of poultry. Finally we reached a beautiful house with a magnificently landscaped front yard (including a fountain) next to a little barnyard full of pigs, chickens, dogs, and a horse. I noticed quite a few “naked neck” chickens on our walk to the farm and in the farm itself. This breed is relatively rare in the United States and I wondered why the Cubans chose it.

Hen and chicks

Daniel invited us inside the fence surrounding his yard to an area behind the house where he explained his farm. He primarily produces tropical fruit and fruit tree seedlings and he runs an extensive system of fruit tree propagation, mostly for guava trees. He takes cuttings from mature guava trees and applies a homemade root growth hormone made from sugar and aspirin. (Aspirin, I learned, comes from willow, which is chock full of root growth hormone.) He places the cuttings in a bed of gravel in a hoophouse that he keeps very wet and humid with a mechanical contraption made from hospital IV tubing and two soda bottles that turns the irrigation on and off every six minutes. The soda bottle invention was initially created by a man named Franchi who we would meet the next day, but Franci’s version has one soda bottle and Daniel’s version has two. After 15-25 days, the cuttings grow roots and Daniel transfers them to plastic bags filled with soil. Even though the seedlings are small, they can already produce fruit.

In front of Daniel's House
A sign at Daniel's house that says "Protect your life... No to chemicals!"
Irrigation Device
Guava Cuttings Taking Root
A close-up of the material the guava cuttings are in
A cutting that grew roots
Guava seedlings
Flower forming on guava seedling
Daniel (whose farm received national recognition for Excellence in Urban Agriculture) maintains a polyculture of guava, avacado, banana, and papaya trees plus tomato, pepper, garlic, watermelon, sweet potatoes, peanuts, and pineapple plants. He told us his goal was to cover the entire ground with plants so that the weeds never had a chance to grow. When he finds a space where he lacks room for a fruit tree, he plants a pineapple. He never plows and he aims to save time and disturb the ecosystem as little as possible. He gave the example of harvesting garlic, which leaves a hole in the soil. He then puts a watermelon plant in that hole, saving him the job of digging holds to plant watermelon. He sells fruit to a local juice shop at the provincial hospital. (Later we visited the juice shop and Daniel was so impressed with my love of guava juice that he made sure I got seconds).

Pineapple planted to prevent erosion
Guava Juice and Fruit Cocktail
Jen and Cristina with Juice

Me with Daniel (the farmer) and Fernando Funes (one of the most influential figures in Cuban urban agriculture)
In addition to fruit and vegetable production, he raises chickens, pigs, horses, rabbits, and goats. As we discussed the uses of the animal manure, our tour guide joked that they use everything here, even the oink of the pigs. Then we walked around the farm, seeing everything that Daniel had explained and eating guavas right off the trees as we went. As we walked, we saw seeds drying in the sun so Daniel could save them. When we arrived back at the house from our tour, we were greeted with platters of watermelon, pineapple, and guava. Then we returned to the bus. Seeing the Cuban families in their homes in the countryside made me determined to give away the clothes I brought to donate to people in the countryside instead of Havana.


Guava Tree
Guava blossom
Jen eating a guava
Emilio, a Cuban ag expert, with a guava

Seed saving


We ended the day in Havana with a buffet dinner at our hotel. Again we encountered the strange mix of foods that our hotel seemed to think foreigners wanted to eat. I took a picture of the sign for “Vegetables with Jam” over a platter of peas with ham. Thank goodness for the tropical fruit we received on our farm tour. But for that, I might be very hungry in Cuba (land of refined grains and meat). They might grow a fantastic range of organic, fresh vegetables year round but those vegetables certainly did not make it into their restaurant cuisine. Because nights in Cuba meant mosquitoes and migraine-inducing compact fluorescent light bulbs for me, I went straight to bed and listened to the last Amy Goodman podcast I downloaded before leaving civilization, news that was now two days old and stale, as I fell asleep.

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