Day 4: Villa Clara to Sancti Spiritus
Our adventure continued the next day at breakfast. As much as I disliked the Hotel Nacional’s buffets, the breakfast in Villa Clara made me long for them. I ate a few pastries and as much tropical fruit as I could consume. Then I took several slices of cold cuts and gave them to the three very friendly but skinny cats waiting outside the doors of the restaurant. All three were grey and black tabbies who looked like siblings, which was quite probable in this country of unspayed and neutered animals. As an American accustomed to seeing neutered dogs and cats, it was a shock to see dogs running about with testicles dangling between their legs or fully developed teats on the females. The Cubans must have thought I was loca to give meat (a scarce and prized luxury among the locals) to stray cats. Then again, if the cats were waiting outside of the restaurant at mealtimes, I must not be the only crazy tourist to stay at that hotel.
Our group began our tour with a visit to Che Guevara’s mausoleum and museum, both of which I skipped so I could nap on the bus. I came to Cuba to see farms and I was a bit bitter that we were taking time for something else. Apparently, as the Cubans saw things, this was a necessary pilgrimage and no one in their right mind would come to Cuba without seeing it, even if the purpose of the trip was agriculture. Che was actually Argentinean, but Cubans have declared Santa Clara as Che’s city because of his heroism there during their revolution.
The next stop was my favorite. It might have been everyone’s favorite. We visited a farm called “San Jose” in Sancti Spiritus province. To get there, we had to board a smaller, non-air conditioned bus, which drove us over bumpy dirt roads and even through a few shallow streams. On the way to San Jose farm, we passed a diversified farm that used rotational grazing for its dairy herd. Then we arrived at San Jose farm.
This region of Cuba ranks second in the country for two crops: rice and tobacco. San Jose farm grew tobacco, which is awful for the soil, they told us. Out of the farm’s 7 hectares, they only used 0.7 hectares for tobacco. Even on their agroecological farm, the tobacco could not be organic. They said it was impossible to meet the demands of the international market without chemicals. They did what they could to minimize chemical use by choosing pest and disease resistant varieties of tobacco, using biological fertilizers and using biological pest controls when they could. Still, they had to apply fungicides to their tobacco crop weekly (Ridomil, made by Syngenta, and Acrobat, made by BASF, among others).
As we approached the farm, I did not expect to like it nearly so much. We came to Cuba to learn about agroecological food production and instead we were visiting a farm that grows tobacco for cigars with fungicides? In retrospect, I understand that the Cubans did not see it this way. Telling Cubans to give up growing or smoking tobacco would be like telling Americans to stop singing the Star Stangled Banner or to stop eating turkey at Thanksgiving. Tobacco and cigars are so much a part of the national identity (although Cubans tend to prefer cigarettes to cigars) that giving up tobacco farming is unthinkable and farming tobacco as close to organic as possible is a bold step.
When we exited the bus, we walked past the farmer and his family, shaking hands and saying “Mucho gusto” like we had on every other farm. Then I saw a pig walking past me, with her entire underside dripping in mud. Our hosts indicated we should follow them into a wooded area, and as we entered the woods, the person in front of me came to a full stop and stooped down to take a picture. One of the Cuban tour guides tried to tell me to look at something, and I wondered what kind of plant could be so interesting. Then I saw: piglets. Tiny, very young (and very cute) piglets, not even 10 feet from us off the path.
Our destination within the woods was an outdoor classroom consisting of several wooden benches. Some fifty yards away, we saw full-grown pigs and piglets, chickens, and a goose roaming around in the woods. A dog followed us into the woods, bringing a ball with him and making it clear that we were to throw it for him to fetch. Once we all sat down, we were formally introduced to the farmer and his family, including two elementary school age children, a boy and a girl. Pablito, the owner of the farm, was nearly 80 and missing several teeth. Four family members worked the farm and they hired additional help during the tobacco harvest.
Pablito spoke to us and our guide translated:
Three generations of this family has lived here on this farm and this is the fourth generation. My predecessors, my family, we have always loved to take good care of nature. This is a legacy of my ancestors and we have tried to continue to working, to perfect and improve, what they have done. Everything we do here is in perfect harmony with nature. This forest is part of the sustainable development of this farm. Here I have about 37 different kinds of trees: fruit trees, wood trees, etc. They are naturally grown; nobody has planted these trees here. To us, a tree growing here in any place is part of the family. This is part of the diversity we have in this farm.
Pablito, the farmer
We grow all the food we need for family consumption. We don’t need to go to the market to buy anything. We have here everything we need. In the case of hygiene products – soap, detergent – we can use some of the plants and herbs from this farm to do the laundry or bath ourselves. We make soap from avocado and coconut. We grind the coconut and the oil we get from it is medicinal for the skin. Then, you will ask, how about the salt and the sugar? The sugar comes from the sugarcane and the salt comes from the bark of the royal palm. In case we have an emergency, we can use everything. Normally, it’s easier to go to the market to buy the sugar and salt, but if we needed it, we have it here.
Here, [pointing to compost pile] we have compost. We have a lot of them here. We have worm compost and a biodigester that uses pig’s manure. Combining all of this, we can establish cycles and then one thing helps us develop the other. We grow our own food and the food for the animals. Then we have the animal’s manure to give us gas to cook. This farm is small, only 7.2 hectares [17.8 acres]. We are producing fruits, grains, beans, vegetables, meats, and all of that production is in harmony with nature.
We are living at a very difficult moment due to the severe drought we have. The year before last, everyone knows Cuba was hit by 3 hurricanes. After that we haven’t had enough rain. It’s been really awful for the whole island. We don’t have enough water and we are only using water where it is necessary. We have had some rain but still plants are not germinating. We also use green fertilizers like beans. We intercrop beans and corn. That has given us the ability to improve our soils so they need less water. And of course this has a beneficial impact on erosion.”
At this point, the wind blew leaves off the trees onto the ground. Pablito stopped and said, “That’s a rain of fertilizer.”
Pablo then answered some of our questions, telling us that the farm produces corn, cassava, taro, beans, tobacco, bananas, sorghum, mangoes, coffee, coconuts, soy, pigs, horses, rice, sesame seeds, and sunflowers. As we'd observed on the way in, they utilize living fences (trees planted in a row to serve as a fence, connected by wire), which also serve as a source of animal food. Also, they had recently finished the tobacco harvest. On the fields where the tobacco had grown, they had already planted corn to begin the process of restoring the soil. Like the other farms we'd visited, this farm saved their seeds instead of purchasing seeds. Another interesting detail Pablito shared was his strategy to deal with hurricanes. He planted some banana trees each month so that the bananas are all at different stages. Because banana trees can be ruined by hurricanes, planting them at different times helped make sure that he wouldn't lose everything at once if a hurricane came.
A living fence
After our Q&A, other members of the family offered us some homegrown lemonade. After we drank it, we began our tour of the farm. We first walked to the barn to see the tobacco hanging up to dry and to hopefully catch a glimpse of the colony of bats that live there. The farm uses the bat guano (poop) to fertilize their fields to grow rice. On the way towards the farm, one of the family members gave me some homegrown coffee to taste. It was absolutely delicious. Just then, I noticed some ripe coffee cherries and asked about them. I'm vaguely familiar with the process of growing and processing coffee but it made so much more sense once I saw the ripe cherries for myself.
Ripe coffee "cherries"
The fruit, referred to as cherries, are about the size of two coffee beans held together. If you bite into them, they are sweet and juicy with a strange flavor that tastes nothing at all like coffee. The fruit breaks apart into two halves, each consisting of a bean covered in pulp and the red outer peel. The beans are white and a little soft, compared to the hard, roasted beans we are used to seeing. By the time the beans reach the roasters in the U.S. as "green beans," they have none of the peel or pulp left on them and they are entirely dried.
From my brief detour to check out the coffee, I rejoined the group to see the barn. Outside the barn was a pineapple plant. Inside, I saw tobacco hanging. I wasn't able to see the bats, who were no doubt hanging upside down asleep somewhere above the tobacco.
The barn where they hung tobacco to dry
Tobacco hanging in the barn
They use this to wrap their tobacco
We stuck around the barn for a while and then headed back to the farmer's house. Several members of the group went to see the farm's two cacao trees (we had a cacao expert on our trip with us) and I stayed near the house, watching one of the grandchildren chase baby chicks around, trying to catch them. The chickens have a coop but they aren't forced to stay in it. When the boy would chase the chicks, they'd go into the coop to get away from him. Then they'd come out again, only to repeat the process. Below are the pictures I took while hanging around outside the house.
A muscovy duck
Pig and chicken
This pig pooped and the chicken immediately started pecking through its poop to find undigested food.
Emilio with to cacao pods
The farmer's house
The stove inside the house
Hand cranked coffee grinder
This farm had a tractor
At last, we said our goodbyes and left on the same bus that brought us to the farm on the same dirt road. Then we transferred back to our own bus and went into the city for lunch.
The city of Sancti Spiritus was gorgeous. Absolutely gorgeous. While the restaurant served the same bland vegetarian option as everywhere else in Cuba (rice with beans and some vegetables that I suspect came from a can), during lunch a miracle happened. For me, anyway. We were all seated under a mango tree when all of a sudden, thud! Down came a ripe mango. And another! And another! Over the course of the meal, enough ripe mangoes fell that everyone got at least one. For me, sitting under a rain of mangoes is absolutely heaven.
The bridge and river
A street in Sancti Spiritus
A street in Sancti Spiritus
A street in Sancti Spiritus
Our restaurant, which was gorgeous and overlooked the river and the bridge
Major international brands and advertising are rare in Cuba, but here's a big fat sign for Nestle, right in our historic and elegant restaurant
The mango tree
A mango that fell during lunch. I ate this one.