Sustainable ag group learns from country that was forced to go organic

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STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – The Cuban people tore down apartment buildings for vegetable plots, and saw an exodus of professionals from fields such as medicine to fields for growing fruit.
The collapse of the Soviet Union in 1991 and the Eastern European-planned economies two years earlier triggered an economic crisis in Cuba. The full effect of the U.S. embargo then became apparent.
Almost overnight, Cuba lost its main trading partner. It also lost its primary source of foreign assistance.
The Soviets had bartered oil at below market prices in exchange for Cuban sugar. In the mid-80s the Soviet Union paid 51 cents per pound for Cuban sugar when the world market price was 6 cents per pound.
This loss of cheap oil propelled Cuba into an energy crisis. Cuban agricultural production halved within five years.
By 1994, the Cuban people were consuming less than two-thirds of their 1989 levels. And for those most dependent on state rations, daily intake fell to 1,450 calories. (The U.S. Department of Agriculture recommends a minimum of 2,100 to 2,300 calories per day.)
A visit today. But how has agriculture in Cuba, which remains under a U.S. embargo, fared since?
At the Farming for the Future Conference Feb. 2-4 in State College, Brian Snyder, executive director of the Pennsylvania Association for Sustainable Agriculture, and Marcos Fernandez, assistant dean of Penn State University’s College of Agriculture, shared what they learned from recent visits to Cuba.
Illustrating their talk with photos, Snyder and Fernandez highlighted how the Cuban people brought about a revolution in food production on their own.
Now organic. Both presenters pointed out how scarce resources changed Cuba’s food production.
A shortage of pesticides and fertilizers forced Cuba to pursue organic methods of production. Biocontrols are prevalent. Sacrificial plants, usually at corners of neat plots, detract insects from the desired crop.
Lots that previously housed buildings had often been contaminated, and soils had to be built. Fernandez remarked on the joy Cubans took in displaying their compost.
Raised beds are common. Discarded construction materials used to contain the soil demonstrate the ingenuity of the growers. And, shade-cloth shields crops such as lettuce from the hot sun.
Seed-saving is typical, and the government provides the irrigation systems.
When Snyder and Fernandez visited, farmers’ community markets were bustling. Once illegal, the markets are now a source of pride, full of organic produce and meats.
Prices and pay. Snyder noticed green peppers selling for 7-8 cents per pound. The free market sets agriculture prices, but the government sets salaries. An average salary in U.S. dollars is $10 a month; a white-collar worker might earn $20 monthly.
However, farmers are allowed free wages, able to earn $40 to $50 a month. Farming and the arts, the latter fueled by tourists, are among the most lucrative careers in Cuba.
In fact, the need to feed one’s family caused professionals such as doctors to pursue food production in the 90s.
Cooperatives abound. Open spaces in the urban areas, which would likely be parks in the U.S., have been converted to cooperative farms.
Prior to the communist revolution in 1959, land ownership was concentrated in the hands of a few. The revolution broke up the concentration of resources and nationalized the economy.
Now, farmers can use the land as long as they produce food. The government requires the first portion of the harvest to be given to local schools, hospitals and nursing homes.
The cooperatives have their own machine shops and keep spare parts, a desire for self-sufficiency that resulted from the post-Soviet acute shortage.
Characteristics. The priorities for sustainable agriculture include organic education, mixing crops and animal production, and community participation.
Snyder observed that one could see a Canadian, German and Spanish – but not a U.S – presence in the local economies.
The size of the average dairy herd numbered 300 before the Cuban revolution. In their current environment, experiments show a herd of 20 cows to be the most efficient.
Grazing with legume fencing for paddocks characterizes most dairy operations. Also, the smaller European breeds are more apparent.
Adaptability has extended to sheep as well. A breed from Africa handles the Cuban summer heat well.
Snyder noted that the island continues to enjoy large citrus plantations.
Still, a woman proudly demonstrating how a methane digester fuels her cooking, reminds people of Cuba’s need for innovation.
Defense. Having coped with extreme shortages, these Cubans, Snyder reported, now regard sustainable agriculture as part of their national defense.

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