Organic farming mushrooms in Cuba amid COVID-19

HAVANA, Sept. 10th (by Yosley Carrero) Located some 350 km east of Havana in the central province of Sancti Spiritus, Fernando Casimiro’s Finca del Medio Organic Farm has become one of the country’s most successful family-run businesses.Thousands of Cuban families have turned to organic farming amid the nationwide spread of the COVID-19 pandemic and the tightening of the U.S. embargo against the island.

Casimiro’s story started in 1993 when he left the town of Zaza del Medio and headed to the countryside to work the land and weather the harsh economic crisis in Cuba after the Soviet Union collapsed.

He says that he does not want to be a millionaire but wants to provide his family and locals with more than 20 different crops and dairy products that the farm produces and live in harmony with nature, away from the hectic activity of the metropolitan areas.

Fernando Casimiro

“Earnings are important, but this is not about making money. It is all about promoting food safety,” he said. “The flavour of the product you yourself grow is different.”

At Finca del Medio, manures of cows have been transformed into fertilizers, oxen have replaced tractors, and every member of the family of eleven does their part so that no employees are required for the moment.

“This is resilience. This is sustainability,” he added.

Finca del Medio 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.

The farmer’s daughter, Leidy Casimiro, 39, has been helping him after she graduated from Agricultural Sciences at the University of Sancti Spiritus.

“Organic farming could help the country’s economy recover from the COVID-19 pandemic,” she said. “I was born and raised in the countryside. Agroecological practices are in my blood.”

The largest Cuban social organization, the Committees for the Defense of the Revolution (CDR), has been distributing flyers among its 8 million members as part of a nationwide campaign to raise awareness about the necessity to grow food at home during the coronavirus crisis.

Organic farming is booming not only in rural areas but also in big towns and cities where nearly 75 per cent of the country’s population lives.

In Havana, an urban gardening revolution is already taking place.

Reinerio Gonzalez, a resident of Havana’s Arroyo Naranjo district, spends two hours a day tending his urban garden, an 80-square-meter plot of land where he grows tomatoes, cucumbers, and carrots.

“It does not mean I do not need to go to the produce market,” said the 66-year-old. “But it could help to save some money and time amid the pandemic.”

Organic farming gained ground on the island in the late 1980s, giving birth to what would later be known as the National Movement of Urban Agriculture.

It became an alternative to intensive agriculture due to difficult access to machinery, chemicals, and fertilizers as a consequence of the U.S. economic sanctions against the Caribbean nation.

Currently, more than 707,000 gardens and close to 147,000 suburban farms are part of a national movement aimed at increasing family self-supply and food production at the local level.

The Caribbean nation produces 1.2 million tons of vegetables a year through organic farms, according to Elizabeth Pena, head of the National Group of Urban, Suburban, and Family Agriculture in Cuba.

Cuba, she said, has allocated 8,362 hectares for cultivation of fresh vegetables through organic practices, and is seeking foreign investment to develop organic farming nationwide.

“We need trucks, tractors, and carts to transport organic fertilizers, as well as water-saving irrigation systems, ” she said.

Local authorities have supported farmers’ initiatives over the last decade through new land concessions in the context of the social and economic model’s updating.

According to Cuba’s National Office of Statistics and Information, close to 80 per cent of the land in Cuba is state-owned, but 70 per cent of it is operated by cooperatives and farmers.

Gregory Valdes, a senior professor with the School of Agricultural Sciences at the University of Sancti Spiritus, said that regarding organic farming, the island has made significant progress over the last few years.

“Organic farming is not only an agricultural practice but a lifestyle as well. It is a matter of future,” he said.