Farm­ers help to shape Cuba´s Future

Cuba is allow­ing more and more pri­vate enter­prise and is seek­ing nor­mal­i­ty in its rela­tions with the US. Agri­cul­ture is also chang­ing as a result.

Jorge Loren­zo looks over his pas­tures and fields in the province of Sanc­ti Spir­i­tus, Cuba. Behind him, the big leaves of the teak trees that grow in the adja­cent for­est rus­tle in the warm wind. “Marabú weeds grew every­where here, it took us weeks to rid the land of the bush­es,” he says. The farmer push­es his hat back from his fore­head and strokes his checked shirt. “Now cat­tle graze here.” In addi­tion, on his 9ha Mr Loren­zo grows feed for his ani­mals, as well as cas­sa­va, sug­ar cane, veg­eta­bles and fruit. The 50-year-old also keeps chick­ens and pigs.

The dense, head-high Marabú bush must be pulled out by the root, or it will grow rapid­ly again after clear­ing. This mimosa plant, intro­duced from Africa, has over­grown on more than 1.2m ha in Cuba, most­ly across the 6.3m ha of agri­cul­tur­al land. The bush­es were able to spread when land use fell sharply due to the eco­nom­ic cri­sis of the 1990s, trig­gered by the col­lapse of the Sovi­et Union. The Caribbean island lost its main cus­tomer for the sug­ar pro­duced over large areas – as well as its sup­pli­er of sub­sidised oil, fer­tilis­er and pes­ti­cides. Trac­tors and har­vesters stood still. Agri­cul­tur­al pro­duc­tion plum­met­ed. Added to this was the tight­en­ing of the US eco­nom­ic embar­go, which meant Cuba suf­fered from wide­spread food short­ages.


Ini­tial Reforms

To increase the pro­duc­tion of food in the coun­try, even under Fidel Cas­tro many of the large state farms were wound up, fields were made larg­er and the farms were organ­ised into large co-oper­a­tives. How­ev­er, to this day these Unidades Bási­cas de Pro­duc­ción Coop­er­a­ti­va (Basic Unit of Co-oper­a­tive Pro­duc­tion, UBPC) may not oper­ate tru­ly eco­nom­i­cal­ly inde­pen­dent­ly; for a long time they had to sell their har­vest at fixed low prices to the state.

Jorge Loren­zo, both cat­tle farmer and uni­ver­si­ty lec­tur­er.

Only in 2008 was reform intro­duced under Raúl Cas­tro, which allowed some­thing akin to pri­vate farm­ing. Since then, vacant land has been award­ed to indi­vid­u­als. Ini­tial­ly, they got the land for a peri­od of 10 years, how­ev­er, today 20-year con­tracts are com­mon.

“The doors are now open for us,” says Mr Loren­zo. He has been cul­ti­vat­ing his 9ha for about ten years, pays no levy and his turnover is taxed at 5%. This is not the only rea­son for his suc­cess. “We have repaid our loans and we have plen­ty of good food for the whole fam­i­ly.” The father of two shows off his veg­etable field where chilli pep­pers, leeks, gar­lic, beans and toma­toes grow. “Every toma­to makes me hap­py,” he says. All cit­i­zens have free access to edu­ca­tion and med­ical care, and the state also pro­vides them with basic foods such as rice, sug­ar, cof­fee and bread. How­ev­er, this usu­al­ly only lasts for one third of the month. And there is a lot miss­ing in the gov­ern­ment shops.

The cultivation of fruit and veg­eta­bles for a family’s own con­sump­tion is there­fore of great impor­tance. On half a ectare Mr Loren­zo pro­duces so much that he and his father Pedro, who helps him on the farm, are able to give the sur­plus to rel­a­tives and sell it to neigh­bours.

Mech­a­ni­sa­tion is just begin­ning

How­ev­er, the fam­i­ly makes the most of its income by sell­ing milk. Mr Lorenzo’s cows pro­duce a com­par­a­tive­ly mod­est 1,000l per lac­ta­tion due to the lim­it­ed graz­ing area. “9ha for 35 cows is too lit­tle, so I try to com­pen­sate for this with grow­ing more for­age crops,” he says. He is con­fi­dent he will be able to increase yields, but there is a lim­it­ing fac­tor: There are no machines on his farm, as with most oth­er small farms. If he needs a trac­tor, Mr Loren­zo must hire one from a ser­vice co-oper­a­tive. Aside from the farm, Mr Loren­zo is a forestry sci­en­tist, and he works full­time as a lec­tur­er at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sanc­ti Spir­i­tus. Although the farm income far exceeds his salary, he would like to keep his job. “The work at the uni­ver­si­ty is very inter­est­ing.”


We have repaid our loans and we have plen­ty of good food for the whole fam­i­ly.

Jorge Loren­zo

Jorge Loren­zo dri­ves in his father’s Moskovich to the pig farm of Joel Matien­so. He skil­ful­ly swerves around the deep pot­holes on the nar­row streets. The shock absorbers of the car, which still orig­i­nates from Sovi­et-pro­duc­tion, groan. The red paint is dull and fad­ed, a long crack per­me­ates the wind­screen and the doors jam. But it runs – and pro­vides a valu­able ser­vice in a coun­try where hard­ly any­one can buy a pri­vate vehi­cle.

Neces­si­ty is the moth­er of inven­tion

At the pig farm, Mr Matien­so can now also afford a set of wheels – even if it is only two. He proud­ly strokes the tank of his beau­ti­ful­ly cared-for MZ motor­bike, which was still com­ing off the pro­duc­tion lines in Zschopau, Ger­many, in 1989. Despite its age, the machine cost the equiv­a­lent of almost £6,800. “I would nev­er have been able to afford it before, nor the air con­di­tion­er and TV,” he yells hoarse­ly over the noise of his pigs and the shred­der, with which his two employ­ees are minc­ing cas­sa­va. The farm belongs to the fam­i­ly. “My grand­fa­ther lived here and farmed for his own needs.” But it was the burly civ­il engi­neer Mr Matien­so who pro­fes­sion­alised the oper­a­tion. In 2005 he start­ed with 100 pigs, about ten years lat­er there were already 300. He gets piglets, vet­eri­nary ser­vices and 60% of his feed from the state-owned com­pa­ny Empre­sa Porci­na, to which he also sells most of his pigs.

Joel Matien­so and Jorge Loren­zo often dis­cuss the future of farm­ing in Cuba.

Mr Matien­so sells some of his pigs to pri­vate cus­tomers, but the major­i­ty are deliv­ered to Empre­sa Porci­na. Although the price is a third less than on the pri­vate mar­ket, he can sell larg­er quan­ti­ties. For this he has to live with the lack of resources and the short­com­ings of a cen­tral­ly-con­trolled sys­tem. “Today they want­ed to pick up 40 pigs but had no vans avail­able.” So the enter­pris­ing farmer organ­ised one at his own expense so he could close the deal. Deliv­ery prob­lems are also com­mon with feed. “Then I have to buy some­where else and fire this thing up.” He knocks on a home-made corn mill. “We Cubans are inven­tive.”

Pic­ture book Cuba. The car, how­ev­er, belongs to a vis­i­tor; Mr Funes him­self dri­ves a Lada.

A coun­try as an exper­i­men­tal lab­o­ra­to­ry

This inven­tive­ness also applies to Fer­nan­do Funes. The road to his Fin­ca Mar­ta farm in the province of Artemisa, east of the cap­i­tal Havana, runs past large sug­ar cane fields, aban­doned fac­to­ry farms and small fields that are ploughed with oxen. On the motor­way hors­es and carts are a com­mon sight along­side old Amer­i­can road cruis­ers.

Fer­nan­do Funes runs an organ­ic farm near Havana.

Out of neces­si­ty, the Caribbean island has becomea test­ing ground for a pos­toil future. Many farm­ers fer­tilise their soil with worm com­post and pro­tect their crops with extracts from the neem tree or tobac­co pan­i­cles.

In this way Mr Funes, who stud­ied agri­cul­tur­al s ciences at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Wagenin­gen in the Nether­lands, prac­tices organ­ic agri­cul­ture. How­ev­er, what is so spe­cial about his Fin­ca Mar­ta farm is the con­cept and mar­ket­ing. “I have researched into and pub­lished papers on organ­ic agri­cul­ture for 20 years, now I want to get some­thing going,” says the 48-year-old. In just four years some­thing amaz­ing has hap­pened on his 8ha. In ter­race beds, lol­lo rosso, aspara­gus, toma­toes, mus­tard, car­rots and radish­es are all grow­ing. Dif­fer­ent vari­eties of fruit and veg­eta­bles change accord­ing to sea­son and cli­mate.

The view from Fin­ca Mar­ta goes far beyond the hilly land­scape all the way to the deep blue sea off the North­ern coast of Cuba, where the port and the spe­cial devel­op­ment zone Mariel have emerged in recent years. Mr Funes also sells his prod­ucts to tourist restau­rants in Havana. Some­thing like rock­et is hard­ly ever seen in Cuba: For 1kg, he earns the equiv­a­lent of about £4. “With this income I can employ 20 peo­ple; and restau­rants can cre­ate count­less dish­es with it that they sell for good mon­ey.” The organ­ic farmer takes a drag on his cig­ar and smiles. “This way, every­one ben­e­fits.”

I have researched into and pub­lished papers on organ­ic agri­cul­ture for 20 years, now I want to get some­thing going.

Fer­nan­do Funes

He also sup­plies a nation­al hotel chain and some pri­vate house­holds. With the help of his own bee colonies, Mr Funes also pro­duces sev­er­al tons of qual­i­ty hon­ey per year, which he most­ly exports via a state-owned enter­prise. “There isn’t any oth­er way yet.” And his third pil­lar is host­ing groups of v isi­tors from Cana­da, the US or Europe, whom the all-round entre­pre­neur shows around Fin­ca Mar­ta.

The demand for his prod­ucts is so great that Mr Funes wants to merge his oper­a­tions with some farms in the neigh­bour­hood to cre­ate an organ­ic co-oper­a­tive that pro­duces accord­ing to his meth­ods. “Local author­i­ties are very recep­tive to the project.”

Pri­vate busi­ness­es and small co-oper­a­tives gen­er­ate the major­i­ty of food pro­duc­tion in Cuba. Crit­ics believe that the pro­mo­tion of pri­vate agri­cul­ture is hap­pen­ing too hes­i­tant­ly. In 2014, state-owned enter­pris­es held almost one third of agri­cul­tur­al land, but pro­duced only 10% of the food. The result is that food and ani­mal feed accounts for about 20% of the annu­al imports into the coun­try. This is despite the fact that each of the 16 provinces has the poten­tial to be self-suf­fi­cient. The coun­try there­fore needs a lot more – from these new farm­ers.


The curse of sug­ar

Short­ly after the rev­o­lu­tion of 1959, Fidel Cas­tro pos­tu­lat­ed that land should belong to those that farm it, not the landown­ers. The mono­cul­ture of sug­ar was to end, along with the relat­ed depen­dence on the US mar­ket. But soon after the coun­try returned to the cultivation of sug­ar cane. This time it was for its new allies, the Sovi­et Union and oth­er East­ern Bloc coun­tries. For many years, sug­ar pro­vid­ed half of Cuba’s gross domes­tic prod­uct. Although the feat pro­claimed by Cas­tro in 1969 of 10m tonnes a year was nev­er reached, the coun­try did increase its pro­duc­tion from 4.95m tonnes in 1959 to 7.14m tonnes in 1990. After that it went down­hill. Acreage and yields fell rapid­ly. The low point was reached in 2011 with a crop of just over 1m tonnes. Since then, pro­duc­tion has risen again slow­ly and the sug­ar sec­tor is to be mod­ernised. How­ev­er, experts doubt whether this is good for Cuban agri­cul­ture.

The author thanks Dr. rer. agr. Har­ald Hilde­brand (Berlin) for his tech­ni­cal advice.