What I've Learned from Farming in Cuba

 Miguel Salcines, the founder of the Alamar Orgoponico, shows our kids the earthworms that produce nutrient-rich, organic soil for his fields. 

Miguel Salcines, the founder of the Alamar Orgoponico, shows our kids the earthworms that produce nutrient-rich, organic soil for his fields. 

Havana, Cuba — It’s winter across much of the Northern Hemisphere, but down here in the Caribbean, we’re in the middle of prime farming season. Several months ago in the fall, we started a garden in our backyard, and now we’re enjoying the fruits of our labor, literally. The arugula is multiplying into a thick forest; our cherry tomato plants have rooted firmly into the soil and are producing little red orbs of sweetness. We even have a healthy patch of kale, a green that my local octegenarian friend R says that she’d never seen in Cuba until I brought her some the other day. 

Even though we live in a city of two million, I’ve never felt more connected to the land. In Cuba, I’ve learned how to compost. I’ve created an organic garden. I’ve observed how to graft mango trees. I’ve learned how to use humus, and I’m not talking about the middle eastern dip, but rather the worm-laden, nutrient-rich soil. 

I’ve been inspired to grow our garden because of the lack of diversity in the produce at the agros and also because of all the farming that takes place around us. Within walking distance is a large plot of land where organic produce grows, next to Havana’s Fifth Avenue. We only have to drive or bike a few minutes to reach several larger farms, where we can buy mint, honey, and guavas directly from farmers who have found their skills to be profitable in the new Cuban economy. 

My biggest source of inspiration is the Orgoponico Alamar Vivero, one of the largest urban farms in Cuba. One recent morning, when my kids’ school was closed for vacation, we decided to make a field trip there with some mommy and daddy friends and their kids. In a caravan of SUVs, we drove through the tunnel that went under the Bay of Havana, towards Havana’s Playas del Este (Beaches of the East). The farm is located near a famous housing project built by Fidel Castro in the 1960s called Alamar that is also known for being the birthplace of Reggaeton, or Cuban rap. 

Miguel Salcines, a Cuban farmer with a degree in agronomy, greeted us at the front gate. He founded the farm in 1997, just as the country was climbing out of the Periodo Especial, a terrible depression that was caused by the collapse of the Soviet Union. As a result, Cubans endured daily power outages that lasted for 14 hours. Some friends I know resorted to eating cats and pigeons. On the farms, tractors sat idle as oxen were employed to till the land (something that is still common today), and chemical pesticides and fertilizers vanished overnight. Orgoponicos, or state-owned urban farms, were introduced, on which farmers grew produce without fertilizers and sold the products to nearby communities, to feed the population more efficiently, without having to transport the goods. 

 Miguel Salcines shows us the fertile organic soil he uses at his farm. 

Miguel Salcines shows us the fertile organic soil he uses at his farm. 

There’s prevailing conventional wisdom among American academics who study Cuban agriculture that it remains almost all organic, but I haven’t found that to be true on the ground.  While Cuba’s orgoponicos are still officially organic, they make up a small percentage of the farming industry these days, as private farms, many of which use chemicals, have grown dramatically. No organic certification process exists in Cuba. We are constantly warned by knowledgeable farmers not to feed our kids certain produce, such as cabbage, papaya, and bananas, because of the pesticides that are used on them. We also have to be wary of a kind of liquid ripener dubbed “liquido” is often put on fruits and vegetables to speed up the ripening process, so vendors can sell them more easily. 

But at certain farms in Cuba such as the one in Alamar, only organic techniques are used. Though the farm is still technically owned by the state, Salcines (as everyone calls him) runs it. He employs 120 people and the workers share in the profits of the farm. About 70 percent of the produce is sold at a stand just in front of the farm, at very affordable prices for the community. About 30 percent of the produce — the higher end stuff — is sold to paladares, or private restaurants, across Havana. 

 This lettuce -- a luxury in Cuba -- glowed and glimmered in the hot sun of Havana. 

This lettuce -- a luxury in Cuba -- glowed and glimmered in the hot sun of Havana. 

Salcines’s farm produces several hundred different types of crops, including lettuce (a luxury crop in Cuba), tomatoes, and mangoes. But he also specializes in growing things that are not often found in Cuba. As we toured his sprawling 25-acre farm, he picked leaves off various trees and plants and chewed them, his mouth moving slowly in circles like that of a cow. He handed the kids some fresh stevia, which looks like large leaves of mint, and had them chew the buds for their sweet, saliva-inducing properties. He pointed out greenhouses filled with oyster mushrooms, the first edible fungus I’d seen in Cuba. He picked the flowers off trees of moringa, a super antioxidant, tea-like leaf whose benefits include fiber, calcium, and beta-carotene; it was a favorite tea of Fidel.

Salcines, who favored casual t-shirts, jeans, and baseball caps, looked like he could pass for a Caucasian American. (His grandparents hailed from Spain.) He had a hippie sensibility and was an avid believer in how the Green Revolution — the intensive agricultural techniques employed after World War II in industrialized nations — has ruined the land. 

“We wanted to grow more food for our growing population, but it was all a mistake,” Salcines said. “I was born on a farm, but I became an agronomist, not a farmer. We were just interested in fertilizers, chemicals. It’s shameful that we lost all the wisdom of our native cultures.” 

While Salcines was not a proponent of industrialized techniques, one thing he yearned for is Home Depot. “We’re waiting for the day they can open in Cuba. We need gardening tools, machines that can vacuum pack and seal our products, and good boots,” he said. “I’m not interested in Taco Bell or Coca-Cola, but I would like a Home Depot.” 

As we entered a barnful of animals, including cows, pigs, and chickens, I was reminded of Michael Pollan’s book, the Omnivore’s Dilemma, in which the author extolls the benefits of a “closed” cycle of gardening that employs the natural fertilizer of animals.  As we watched Salcines' cows chew on grass, he pointed to their droppings and said, “This caca” — poop —  “is our future.” 

My daughter, who loves to collects things, filled up a zip-lock bag with various fruits, flowers, and nuts she’d found on the farm. The other kids, especially my son, was less excited about the visit. (My son didn’t like his shoes getting so muddy — I suppose there’s no future in farming for him.) Other kids showed interest in the worms in the humus, the nutrient-rich dirt used as natural fertilizer.

But there was no question what part of the visit was their favorite: as we walked into a pen filled rabbits, the kids all cooed and spent a good amount of time petting and feeding them. We spared them the knowledge the rabbits would be sold to restaurants for consumption, and went on to the farm stand for an ice-cold guarapo — sugarcane juice pressed through a medieval-looking contraption.  After buying a few items of organic produce, we piled back into our caravan of cars with a lamentably large carbon footprint and headed home.

 Daughters of my friends enjoying the scent of fresh oregano leaves at Alamar. 

Daughters of my friends enjoying the scent of fresh oregano leaves at Alamar.