Sweet-smelling dirt sticks under the fingernails of Angel Araujo Cespedes, a small-scale farmer in eastern Cuba. The 70-year-old is fit and fast-moving. Quick to smile, he sings as he walks through his garden on the outskirts of Baracoa, stuffing tiny shallots into the black soil. He demonstrates on his palm how to finely chop the garlic that will complement the eggplant he grows, kissing the tips of his fingers with gusto.
The abundant spread in his tiny plot of government-owned land stands in stark contrast to Cuba in the late 1990s, a Cuba where fresh garden vegetables were hard to come by and backyard gardens, like large-scale operations, produced only a small fraction of the food available prior to the collapse of the Soviet Union. Political and economic shifts in recent years have allowed for keen growers like Angel to take the island’s tight food situation into their own hands. Literally.
But unlike hobby gardeners elsewhere in the world, where folks can access well-stocked garden centers, Angel has to get pretty creative in how he builds his soil, nourishes his plants, and manages pests.
Living in a town surrounded by cacao plantations, his source of fertilizer is the discarded cacao pod husks that pile up as waste in the making of chocolate. The husks make his veggies grow like weeds — and leave a sweet aroma over the patch. To trap pests, he sets a series of colored tubes throughout the garden filled with syrups laced with a plant-based oil. The bugs get stuck in the elixir, allowing Angel to determine which pests are arriving in large enough numbers to require a natural pesticide, like the one he makes from Neem tree bark and tobacco leaves.
“People ask us: how is it that your vegetables are so beautiful? It’s all because we sow the seeds with love and care,” Angel says. He and his long-time friend Raúl Guevara work this quarter-hectare of land, the Organopónico 13 de Agosto, with pride every morning. By the time the baking noonday sun drives them to shady rocking chairs to sip coffee, a tiny market stand along the road has already sold off much of their organic produce. Carrots, corn, eggplants, celery, onions, peppers, and more end up in kitchens all over Baracoa. A roadside farm stand may seem fairly commonplace, but this is relatively new. (Cuba largely discouraged private enterprise under Fidel Castro). The stand provides a job for the woman hired by the government to run the shop, and leaves Angel with a nice padding on top of his pension.
Cuba has become a leading example of sustainable development in agriculture, not so much by choice as by circumstance. The fall of the Soviet Union, Cuba’s primary trade partner, caused agricultural production to drop by more than half during the euphemistically dubbed ‘Special Period’, which began in 1989. Food rationing intensified amid vanishing imports of agricultural supplies, equipment, and petroleum-based products like pesticides and fertilizers. People responded with ingenuity, including at the dinner table. In place of steak from a cow — forbidden at the time, as dairy milk took precedence — hungry Cubans were frying up marinated slabs of banana peel.
As the economic crisis eased, the Cuban government began slowly, steadily encouraging small-scale food production, which included lifting restrictions on farmers selling directly to customers. After Raúl Castro took the reins in 2008, the state began doling out more underused land plots, including Soviet-era hydroponic systems that relied on ample imports of fertilizer to produce crops. The long cement planting troughs this left behind are useless without commercial fertilizers, but they’re ideal as raised beds to hold a fine blend of soil and organic matter. Thousands of small organopónicos have since spread across Cuba.
Angel jumped at the chance to acquire such a plot and grow his own produce as a way to supplement his pension and stay active in retirement. As a former agronomist for the Ministry of Agriculture, his passion for crops parallels his interest in good food. Under the arrangement, the government gives Angel the land and water for free. In exchange, Angel provides roughly one-fourth of his harvest for social distribution, depending on yield. Any veggies left over are available for Angel to sell, giving him good incentive to boost production through new organic technologies, including biofertilizers, and to revive traditional techniques such as crop rotation, companion planting, and adding compost and manure.
He can also access government-developed biocontrols, such as insects, fermented bacteria, fungi, and plant-based oils that work as pesticides. Across Cuba there are more than 200 state-run centers researching and producing biocontrols and natural enemies to pests. Farmers who keep a close eye on their crops stand a good chance of catching any such invaders before they become too damaging.
The rise of organopónicos doesn’t mean Cuba is an idyllic, we-solved-world-hunger-kind of place. Food scarcity still persists on the island. Even with increased production from small-scale farmers, Cuba continues to depend on imported staples like rice, wheat, and vegetable oil for nourishment. Frequent droughts, violent hurricanes, and desertification are all real concerns, not to mention outside economic pressures.
With the recent normalization of relations with the United States, uncertainty remains about how the new era will affect the culture (and agriculture) on the island. Many Cubans seem to be balancing relief with reserved optimism as they wait to see what the political changes will mean for their daily lives. The rather stoic response from an otherwise enigmatic people seems to be “Vamos a ver”. We’ll see.
With equal doses of dignity and humility, Angel says simply, “I hope they realize Cuba has much to offer.” He’s not speaking of an untapped market for conventional agricultural products. With any luck, Cuban DIY farming techniques can be copied elsewhere, rather than having their creative solutions plowed over.