Cuba’s organic farms flourish amid pandemic’s potential impact on food supply

Cuba's organic farms flourish amid pandemic's potential impact on food supply

HAVANA, July 28  Small-scale organic farms are flourishing in Cuba, spurred by COVID-19’s potentially damaging impact on the food supply.Michael Ponce’s Vista Hermosa Organic Farm is a tranquil agroecological dairy, meat and poultry enterprise situated by the side of a narrow stream that flows through a savannah on the outskirts of the country’s capital Havana.

The 44-year-old farmer, who inherited the land from his father, took part in an organic farming revolution initially driven by the U.S. trade embargo, which made it difficult to import necessary goods, like machinery and chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Ponce, who enjoys taking a handful of wet soil, bringing it up to his face and breathing deeply, said nothing is wasted at the farm, everything is repurposed in keeping with organic farming practices.

From chickens to goats, pigs and cows, farm animals at the 67-hectare farm have a lot of space to roam and feed on naturally nutrient-rich soil. Nearly 20 different crops, including lettuce, cucumber and carrots, are also harvested here without using fertilizers and pesticides.

“By the end of the year, this farm will have delivered a total of 40 tons of meat to the Cuban people, and we can still do more,” Ponce said.

Ponce, who employs almost 30 people he described as his “agricultural extended family,” said “we are committed to continuing to work hard to put food on Cubans’ dinner tables.”

The working day starts before sunrise when 80 dairy cows and 70 goats are lined up to be milked.

Vista Hermosa has joined the global Slow Food movement, which encourages people to eschew fast-food restaurants in favour of dishes made with locally produced ingredients and preserve culture and heritage through healthy eating habits.

Iris Fonseca, who works as an agricultural engineer at the farm, said that in lieu of chemical fertilizers, crop rotation is used to effectively control pests, in addition to combating soil erosion and sustaining soil nutrients.

“Growing the same crop on the same land year after year is not good. That’s why we follow a rigorous crop rotation system, which makes the land more productive and environmentally sustainable,” she said. “This is the way successful farmers have worked for generations.”

Before the pandemic, the farm was a tourist attraction, drawing about a thousand visitors a month escaping the hustle and bustle to breathe fresh air, ride horses, enjoy lunch at a farm-to-table restaurant in the middle of this green oasis, and pick up some organic produce.

“I drove 20 minutes from Havana’s historic downtown area. I bought bananas, spinach, avocados and cheese,” said Jose Fuentes, a Cuban vintage car driver. “Quality produce is worth the trip.”

The island imports as much as 80 per cent of the food it consumes, and to reduce the imports, authorities have been promoting small urban farms across the country’s 168 municipalities.

“Cuba’s self-sufficiency program at the municipal level can and needs to move forward. It is a guiding principle and an urgent need in light of the intensification of the obsessive U.S. embargo against the island and the food crisis the COVID-19 pandemic will provoke,” Jose Ramon Machado Ventura, second secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba Central Committee, told local media in late June.

Modern-day organic farming in Cuba first gained ground in the early 1990s, after the collapse of the Soviet Union, which cut off the island’s access to essential imports.

Gregory Valdes, a senior professor at the School of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Sancti Spiritus, said that in the beginning, going organic was seen as a necessity but it has now become a choice.