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Cuba’s Delicious Surprise

Free market innovations yield bumper crops

April 24, 2003 | By Arlin Wasserman
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service

Arlin Wasserman/MLUI
  Produce stands are a common and colorful sight throughout Havana. They feature spectacular, fresh-picked, organic produce, often grown within the city.

It took some time to get used to Cuba’s culinary ways. Each meal during my two-week visit last month celebrated the amazing diversity of Cuba’s agriculture in a manner that’s seen in Michigan only at posh buffets. Breakfast featured a colorful riot of tropical fruits. Still more of what seemed an endless variety of fruits, vegetables, and tubers appeared at lunch and dinner. And always, among all of that gorgeous produce, there were piles of eggs, rice and beans, broiled chicken, or spit-roasted pork.

But the real adjustment I had to make was in my perception of our neighbor 90 miles south of Florida. Cuba isn’t a starving communist country strangled by a decades-long U.S. trade embargo. In fact, that trade embargo and the cutoff of support from the U.S.S.R. that followed the Soviet collapse have had an ironic and fortuitous effect: Cuba now has a vigorous free-market agricultural system.

Yes, free market. In fact, when it comes to food production, the island is a free market stronghold — a dramatic, surprising, even ironic demonstration of how the invisible hand that Adam Smith so loved can help, even in Cuba.

Moreover, the food production system that Cuba pioneered out of political necessity and resource constraint offers valuable lessons to small and mid-sized farmers in Michigan — and the nation — who face declining commodity prices and rising costs of mechanization, pesticides, and fertilizers that threaten to put them out of business. Cuba’s agricultural system solved much more severe forms of those problems in the late 1980s, including a complete, simultaneous cutoff from both their markets and their chemical “inputs.”

But reforms in marketing and farming techniques provided a path for Cuba to recover in spectacular style and avoid something close to widespread starvation. Installing similar reforms in Michigan, startling as that sounds, could also lead to notable results: dramatically boosting the quality of our food supply and making family farming truly profitable. This in turn would have another dramatic effect: It would help stop sprawl.

Keep ‘Em Coming Back
In both Cuba and Michigan, it all starts with keeping consumers happy. Abundance and redundance: That sums up almost every meal I ate in Cuba during my stay there, which was part of a study tour organized by Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy to provide American and other farm policy specialists an in-depth look at Cuban agriculture.

From my first moments on the island, it was plainly evident that Cuban farmers know what their customers want and like. Wander through one of the many farmers markets that enliven Havana’s neighborhoods and you’ll see satisfied people buying high quality oranges, grapefruits, guavas, papayas, pineapples, and dwarf bananas; beautiful tomatoes, cucumbers, arugula, bok choy, water spinach, and varieties of lettuce; and terrific-looking potatoes, plantains, and boniatas, the native white sweet potato. It’s a food connoisseur’s delight. That was not always true.

Necessity, Grandmothers, and Invention
Up until 1989, Cuba’s socialist economy was designed to produce and harvest enormous amounts of sugar, tobacco, and pork using the most advanced factory farming techniques. The government traded these at an inflated price to the Soviet Union, which then sold them clothing, pharmaceuticals, fuel, animal feed, machinery, and most everything else at a discounted price in order to prop up a communist nation just offshore of our own capitalist country.

That comfortable set-up completely fell apart in 1989, when the Soviet Union started to disintegrate and Cuba lost its largest customer. The island was suddenly cut off from pesticides, fertilizers, special animal feed tailored to herds of factory-raised pigs, chickens and cattle; gasoline, spare parts, and even medical supplies.

By 1993, the nation’s food imports had dropped by a nearly catastrophic 60 percent. Per capita caloric intake dropped more than 35 percent and folks became very hungry. In one of the greatest official understatements of all time, Cuba entered what President Fidel Castro called “The Special Period.”

To get back to its “regular” period, Cuba needed a burst of innovation that could dramatically spur agricultural production. The government had to develop methods that no longer relied on heavy equipment and chemicals. So, the island’s leaders did what was previously unthinkable, but now necessary: They set up a market-based system directly linking farmers to consumers.

Because a non-mechanized approach is more labor-intensive, the government lured retirees, the largest pool of idle workers, into farming. Next, the government stood the U.S. model of commodity payments — directly paying farmers to grow more of key crops — on its head. Cuba offered its new coterie of farmers both training and the seeds of their choice to grow whatever they thought would sell. Farmers now “pay back” the state for the education and seeds by selling a portion of their goods to hospitals, schools, and daycare centers at discounted prices. They rest is theirs to sell on the open market.

Risks and Rewards
Cuban farmers can now take whatever risks they think might be profitable. The only way they can make money is by meeting the real needs of consumers — a marked change from the American approach, which pays farmers for managing lands according to federal standards.

Cuba’s consumer-oriented markets have produced a bountiful variety of food. Like the tables groaning under loads of produce that greeted us at every meal, farmers’ fields revel in abundance and redundance. Cuba’s growers fill their own consumer niche rather than growing a single crop. They keep customers coming back by providing them with fresh, great-tasting, high quality food. Fruits and vegetables are often picked just in time for delivery to commercial kitchens, or when customers walk up to the roadside produce stands scattered across Havana province.

By growing produce to meet consumer tastes, Cuban farmers now avoid the huge, monochromatic blocks of golden wheat and tasseled green cornstalks that are so quintessentially American. A much finer web covers Cuba’s land: Individual rows of, say, romaine lettuce, cauliflower, tomatoes, and spinach, often framed by rows of banana trees. Planting such a carefully chosen diversity of species, also known as intercropping, not only makes a very pretty picture; it also greatly benefits the environment by reducing the need for pesticides and fertilizers that mono-cropped agriculture heavily depends on.

Follow the Money
Growing such a great selection allows a family to fill its refrigerator with the bounty from a single farm. Larger farms can fill the shelves of a neighborhood market. Cuban farmers’ collective choice to diversify rather than specialize cuts transport and storage costs. Negotiantes, or food brokers, are almost nonexistent. Because money flows directly from consumer to growers, Cuban farmers are some of the country’s most prosperous small-business people.

Some of the more skillful farmers, like the ones who grows 50-acre parcels of sweet potatoes in Santa Clara Province, earn up to $40,000 U.S. a year after expenses. That’s a lot more than the $8 - $20 dollars a day than many of the island’s white-collar workers earn. The result is a rush to get into farming. A new breed of Cuban worker now makes the daily trip from houses and apartments in sprawling Havana to open land where, as farmers, they can make the big bucks. Money has changed the popular perception of campesinos. They are now seen as successful entrepreneurs, not as lower-class peasants.

The rush to farming has also changed the urban landscape. The organiponico system is a crazy quilt of small farms scattered across the thousands of lots in Havana that were left vacant by decades of severe shortages of the construction materials needed to repair the damage from hurricanes, especially Hurricane Michelle, the worst in 50 years, which hit the city hard in 2000. Instead of rebuilding businesses, Cubanos are building farms that create jobs, earn good money, and provide some of the freshest fruits and vegetables available in any city in the world, because it’s literally grown next door and picked to order.

While Cuba still isn’t out of “The Special Period,” food production is now approaching the level that Soviet-era pesticides, fertilizer, and industrial agriculture equipment made possible. In a remarkably short time, the city’s revitalized system of small farms, many no bigger than a vacant lot, now produce 10 ounces of fresh fruit and vegetables a day for each of the city’s 2.2 million residents, a healthy portion even by U.S. standards.

Cuba’s exercise in a different kind of market incentives, free of crop subsidies and commodity markets, shows that when farmers and consumers connect, growing food that’s delicious, healthy, and pesticide-free can be a very profitable exercise in free enterprise. As Michigan farmers become more interested in sustainable farming techniques and stronger connections to nearby markets, they have a very good model to learn from.

Arlin Wasserman is the Michigan Land Use Institute’s policy advisor. In 2002, he was awarded a prestigious Food and Society Policy fellowship, sponsored by the W.K. Kellogg Foundation, the Thomas Jefferson Agricultural Institute, and the Institute for Agriculture and Trade Policy. You can reach him at arlin@mlui.org.

About the Trip
Arlin Wasserman was part of the largest agricultural study delegation that has ever visited Cuba. The two-week fact-finding trip, sponsored by the Oakland, California-based food policy think tank Food First/Institute for Food and Development Policy, investigated Cuba’s transformation from chemical-intensive, industrial agriculture to a more sustainable and organic system. The travel group included agricultural experts, academics, and public policy people from organizations that study food security issues throughout the Western Hemisphere. They visited urban and rural farms and met with government officials, scientists, and farmers to discuss how Cuba’s experiences in revitalizing its agricultural system could be transferred to the United States and other countries.

This was the fifth delegation organized by Food First, which has been participating in Cuba’s agricultural transformation since 1994.  Last year the group published Sustainable Agriculture and Resistance: Transforming Food Production in Cuba, a book largely written by the Cuban agriculture experts involved with this transformation. For more information, visit http://www.foodfirst.org/cuba/cubatripinfo.

On March 24, 2003, two weeks after Arlin returned from the study tour, the Bush administration barred Americans from  visiting Cuba for educational purposes, ending a 12-year program of cultural and professional exchange.

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