Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Cuba Diaries: Day 4, Part 2 - Sancti Spiritus

Here's the fifth 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 visited farms in the province of Sancti Spiritus.

Me with a bird

Day 4, Part 2: Sancti Spiritus

After lunch our group drove to a nearby "huerto" (vegetable garden) called El Refrescante. On the way there, we saw plenty of horse-drawn carts, a common sight in the Cuban countryside and in cities outside of Havana. Then we pulled up in front of a small garden that produced food for a school for the blind.

Horse and cart

Crops growing... our first view of this garden

As we walked in, the first person we encountered was a small child with a pet bird. The farmer met us and told us he used permaculture and agroecology but he also specialized in green building. First, he showed us his rain barrel where he gathered rain water. It ran off of his room into a gutter and then collected in the barrel. The barrel itself was made from recycled material, and it had a spigot in the bottom where the farmer could let the water out.

Rain barrel

Top of the rain barrel

Then we walked around the house to learn about his composting toilet. First he showed us the external components of the toilet - a bottle to trap insects and a chimney to let out any gas. Then we saw the toilet itself, inside his house. Thus, he was able to return the nutrients of the food he ate to the earth by applying his own waste to the soil as fertilizer. Of course, this must be done very carefully. He told us it took an entire year to compost human waste and then it had no smell and any pathogens were dead.

Composting toilet

The outside of the house where the composting toilet is. Any bugs that get into the toilet get trapped in the glass bottle here. Any gas coming off of the waste as it composts goes out this pipe.

The pipe forms a sort of chimney that lets out any gas fumes

While we walked around the house outside, we didn't realize that we were walking directly under and next to beehives. Two were boxes, like we use in the U.S., but one was just a hanging hollow log.


More beehives

The rest of the group stayed indoors to learn how the farmer made bricks out of soil to use in green building, but I walked around outside, taking pictures around the yard.

One of the three rooms in the house

A close-up of the permaculture sign in the bedroom.

The outside of the house and the yard

Check out the tire around the tree

Chickens (including a few naked necks, a relatively rare breed that I saw a few times in Cuba)


Banana trees and casava

I thought this tree was pretty cool. It was right over the compost pile, and in this picture you can see a small sign that says "Compost"

Worm compost

After we left El Refrescante, we went to one last stop for the day, an organiponico called La Quinta. This organiponico was 1.5 hectares (3.7 acres) and quite a bit of it was what the Cubans called "semiprotegido" (semiprotected?). I don't know what to call the structures we saw in Cuba because they don't seem to fit the proper descriptions of greenhouses or hoophouses. They certainly weren't heated. If anything, the reason for covering crops was shading them, not providing extra heat. This was a relatively large operation, as it had 69 workers (compared to previous organiponicos we'd visited with only 10 workers). When we arrived, we gathered under the shade of a neem tree to be welcomed by La Quinta's director.

La Quinta organiponico

Neem tree

Neem tree

Leaves from the neem tree

This organiponico was similar to many others we'd seen. They were in transition between cool season and warm season crops, so we saw beds that weren't yet planted or were newly planted. In one case, we saw where they were spreading composted manure in a bed to prepare it for the next crops.

Spreading composted manure on the bed

Newly planted lettuce

Onions along the border of a bed, waiting for a second crop in the middle

Onions around the perimeter of the bed with a different crop in the center and oregano in the front. In Cuba, they planted a different type of oregano than the Greek oregano we're accustomed to in the U.S.

Like other places we visited, they used sorghum and corn as physical barriers to pests at each end of their beds

One new feature in this organiponico compared to the others we'd visited was the rice hulls (or was it chaff?) used as a mulch in between the beds. They made a nice mulch and it was a nice change from the bare dirt paths we'd walked on elsewhere. Interestingly, they grew Jamaica flowers (Hibiscus), a popular flavor in Mexican (and perhaps Cuban?) juices and teas.

Rice hulls as bedding


After our visit to La Quinta, we went to our hotel. We spent the evening swimming in the pool, drinking beers and mojitos, and playing with stray cats and dogs. Just before the restaurant closed, we headed in to dinner. Again we were offered our choice of meats or the same nasty vegetarian option (white rice with canned vegetables). I opted to skip dinner instead of eating any of it and the waiter offered me a fried egg, which I accepted.

Some people stayed out dancing at night but I preferred to go to bed early in Cuba because the entire country uses energy efficient CFL lightbulbs that give me migraines, and once the sun went down, my head was like a migraine timebomb waiting to go off. Before bed, I sat outside chatting for a bit with a few others and a skinny stray cat with one eye came over to us. We took turns petting her, and she climbed in my lap and purred for a while. I vowed to bring her some food at breakfast the next day. Then, when I realized I was being eaten alive by mosquitoes, I headed up to bed.

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