Tuesday, May 25, 2010

Cuba Diaries: Day 9, Part 2 - Urban Farming in Havana

Here's the eleventh 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. Day 9 was an incredible field trip to three farms in Havana. The first part I wrote up covered a trip to a 40 acre urban farm called Alamar. This diary covers a visit to a satellite farm affiliated with Alamar and a dairy farm.

Day 9 of my trip was the third day of a Pan-American agroecology conference that included people from all over North, Central, and South America as well as all over Cuba. Instead of sitting in panels and plenaries all day, on this day everyone went on field trips all over Havana. I chose the trip that went to a very famous and successful organiponico called Alamar (see my Day 9, Part 1 diary), but the trip also included visits to a second organiponico called Rotonda de Cojimar and a dairy farm. The dairy farm was particularly exciting for a few reasons, which I'll explain below.

First, Rotonda de Cojimar. This was a small organiponico that was created as a satellite of Alamar, the larger organiponico we visited later in the day. Although it was smaller than Alamar, it was still larger than many of the organiponicos we had visited on our trip. I think they said they had about 30-40 workers (compared to 170 at Alamar). Rotonda de Cojimar was similar to many of the organiponicos we'd visited around Cuba, as you can see from the pictures below. Interestingly, they grew a type of spinach more similar to what I've seen in the U.S., not the strange variety that I saw on nearly every other farm we visited in Cuba.

Rotonda de Cojimar sign


Saving seeds




A bug trap

Start trays


A veggie washing station


Removing the husks of the coconuts

As we ended our visit to Rotonda de Cojimar, I checked out their farm stand. Even though the majority of places we visited produced food for their communities, we hadn't gotten much of a chance to see farm stands or price lists on other farms.

Prices on the sign above are as follows:
Garlic paste: $6 Cuban pesos (US$.25)
Celery powder: $1 Cuban pesos (US$.04)
Oregano: $2 Cuban pesos (US$.08)
Basil: $2 Cuban pesos (US$.08)
Green beans: $5/lb (US$.21)
Beet: $5/lb (US$.21)
Coconut: $2 (US$.08)
Lettuce: $3/lb (US$.13)

Prices for meat

They also had a second counter at the farmstand that sold meat. Here are the prices on that sign (as best I could gather):
Pork ribs: $18/lb Cuban pesos (US$.75)
Liver: $20/lb Cuban pesos (US$.83)
Pork loin: $21/lb Cuban pesos (US$.88)

As you can probably see from these prices, meat is a prized luxury in Cuba. Outside of the chicken and perhaps fish they get in their monthly rations, Cubans don't have much access to artificially cheap meat like we do in the U.S. And, quite frankly, although these prices are insanely high for a Cuban earning the average salary of 427 pesos/month (or even three times that), they would certainly be more accurate in terms of the true cost of production of meat. Prices this high would result in diets rich in vegetables with meat used as a condiment most of the time, or a special treat for holidays or perhaps once a week for a Sunday dinner.

I can say for sure that Cubans would prefer cheaper meat and they would absolutely like to eat meat with every meal. In fact, they'd probably prefer to never see another vegetable again if they had a choice. But unfortunately nature doesn't always align with human preferences, both in terms of nature's ability to produce all-meat diets for our species and our bodies' ability to live on all-meat diets. Despite their desire for more and cheaper meat, nature forces Cubans to eat healthier diets than we do in the U.S.

After our visit to Alamar, we headed over to a dairy farm. This was particularly interesting because dairy is rationed in Cuba. Only children under seven or people with special dietary needs receive milk in their rations. Often the milk they get is dry milk, not fresh milk (refrigeration requires a lot of energy). On a previous visit to a cooperative that had a dairy herd, a dairy expert in our group inquired about the Cuban cows' productivity. He told me afterward that the amount of milk they got per cow was about what he'd expect to get from a really good goat. Why couldn't Cubans produce more milk?

I didn't get all of the answers I wanted, but I got some. The dairy farm was visited was - like every other site we visited - diversified. In addition to raising 52 cows for milk, they also had a few beef cows and some rabbits and chickens, plus fruits, vegetables, and forests. Additionally, they produced all of the cows' feed on their farm.

Prior to the collapse of the USSR and the loss of Cuba's access to oil, Cuba used many of the dairy breeds common in the U.S. and Europe. Once the Special Period started, an oil intensive diet of grain shipped in from elsewhere was no longer possible and many agricultural animals died. To produce cows more adapted to a grass diet and Cuba's tropical climate, this farm crossed Cuba's Creole cows with Red Holsteins (a more common dairy breed). They told us they were continuing to mix more and more Red Holstein back into their cows to hopefully produce a herd that was adapted to the climate and diet but also possessed the ability to produce a lot of milk.

We began our tour in the milking parlor, where we were introduced to the farmers and their farm (and where the cows are milked twice a day). They told us they had two goals - nourishing the soil and maximizing productivity per hectare. They grow king grass and sugar cane as cattle feed. Corn and soy from Europe (like they used before the Special Period) were too expensive as a cattle feed, they said. The farmer quoted Fidel Castro, saying that Fidel endorsed pasture as the best cattle feed. (We might not admire their Communist government, but at least their leaders know a thing or two about agriculture!) On this farm, each cow lives 11-12 years, which is quite a long time to keep a dairy cow. They said they'd prefer to replace the cows around age six or seven but they couldn't afford it. At industrial farms in the U.S., dairy cows live only three or four years before they are culled.

The fact that they milk twice a day is also interesting. Some places we visited in Cuba only milked once a day, which results in reduced milk production (compared to milking twice a day). You can increase milk production by milking three times a day (as industrial farms in the U.S. do) but obviously that requires more labor (and - if you're using machines to milk the cows - electricity). This farm told us they average about 8 liters (2.1 gallons) per day per cow. That's not very much.

Dairy sign

Milking Parlor

From the milking parlor, we walked over to see the cows. They were penned up, eating ground up grass that had been brought in from the fields by a team of oxen and ground for them using a machine we passed as we walked. I also passed a noni tree, noting that it was interesting and cool that a dairy farm was diversified, producing other crops besides milk.

Later, I asked a dairy expert from our group why the cows were penned up. Wouldn't it be less labor- and energy-intensive to let the cows harvest their own food and fertilize the fields with their manure than to keep the cows in a pen and then bring the food in and the poop out? Yes, he said, but keep in mind that Cuba is at the end of its dry season. Right now there's no good pasture where the cows can graze. In a month or so, after the rains come, then these cows will go out to pasture. For now, the farm was doing what they could to feed the cows, and they didn't have much choice about it.

A noni tree


A cow

After visiting the cows, we saw where the farm produces the cows' food. Then we wandered into another barn where they had a few beef cattle, including some very adorable calves. We kept walking, passing a room full of rabbits. We saw a lot of rabbits intended for meat in Cuba and it got harder and harder for me each time we saw them. They are just so cute and it broke my heart that they would be killed and eaten.

A road going out to the field

The field to the left of the road

And the field to the right of the road.

Oxen who hauled the harvest in from the field

Ground up grass for the cows to eat

Baby beef



That wrapped up our trip to the dairy farm. The farm served us a spread of cakes, mangos, bananas, and juice as well as lunches that I assume we brought with us from our hotel. Lunch was an enormous hunk of pork, plus potatoes, cassava, rice, and beans. I gave my pork to a nearby dog and ate the rest. After lunch, we boarded the bus and headed back to the hotel.

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