January 24, 2011
CLF’s Sr. Research Program Coordinators Jesse Kurtz-Nicholl and Sarah Rodman are visiting Cuba as part of a Natural Environmental Ecological Management delegation. Members of the group will see first hand large-scale Cuban infrastructure developed to support its 18-year-old, world-renowned sustainable agricultural system in both the rural and urban sectors.
I’ve just returned from eight days in Cuba studying their sustainable agricultural system — especially their urban agriculture sector — and I have several key take-aways.
One of the biggest insights was the untapped potential of urban agriculture as a creator of good jobs. The Cuban system was reported to have provided over 300,000 employment opportunities and significant community development. (Koont, S. 2009) In a country of 12 million people, that means 2.5% of the Cuban population is employed in urban agriculture and its related industries.
Now, for many reasons, you cannot and should not compare Cuba to the United States with regard to agriculture. The two nations have different economic and political systems, cultures, climate and much more, but that does not mean that Cuban urban agriculture cannot provide lessons to us here in the U.S. I have long been interested in urban agriculture – not only as a way to provide healthy, local produce, but as a community development and youth development tool and, yes, a job creator. This is the mindset I had when I met Miguel Salcines and his Vivero
Vivero Organiponico is a 10-hectare (24-acre) urban farm within Alamar, a neighborhood of Havana. It is surrounded by apartments, houses, parks and the normal activities of a Havana neighborhood. The farm produces 12 to 15 crops for market, from eggplant to tomatoes, to lettuce, cabbage and onions. It sends produce to market 365 days a year. The farm grows intensively, turning over beds at a blistering rate, sometimes getting eleven cycles of greens out of a bed in a single year. It uses no chemical pesticides and no artificial fertilizers, but can draw fertility from its cattle and its large vermicomposting and mycorrhizae systems.
This organiponico is called a UBPC (basic unit of cooperative production) which is a sector of Cuban agriculture where farms are run on a cooperative basis, managed independently by individuals not employed by the Cuban government. The farms’ managers pay salaries and taxes, make profits and set prices. While in certain situations UBPC’s have levels of production that they must meet for the state (often sold to the state below the cost of production), even in those situations they can sell much of their surplus produce into local farmers markets and keep the profit for their cooperatives.
This is a major change from the large industrial state farms of the communist system that existed for decades. These relatively new cooperatives provide economic incentives to increase production through various efficiencies. Salcines’ organiponico has no quota to meet for the state and can sell all of its produce in local markets at prices he establishes. This cooperative (Salcines is the president) began with four workers during the “special period” and the land he received in free usufruct has grown over 15 years to employ 147 workers, 42 of whom are women. They are proud to employ 18 university graduates and 34 agricultural technicians, as 35% of his employees have graduated from institutions of higher learning.
At this organiponico, workers have a stake in the success of the business venture. They get one share of stock after they complete each of their first three years of employment, and then an additional share after years 5, 10 and 15. Salcines has had workers who lasted only one hour, refusing to put forward the hard work that is required, but the ones who have stayed earn a good living and have created a profitable business that supplies the city of Havana with fresh fruits and vegetables every day. In many ways, Salcines provides an exemplary model of what urban agriculture could provide. His workers have a seven-hour day, (only six during the summer) and he says they are more efficient workers this way. He serves them breakfast and lunch for free (with food grown from the farm) and often the farm is filled with school groups, working and touring the farm.
How much job creation could urban agriculture accomplish in the United States? That might depend on certain changes happening. One major obstacle is the way that the public perceives agriculture. Most people in Cuba and the U.S. share in the perception that farming is a less than desired profession. In Cuba, several people we visited during our delegation’s trip discussed the need to change the idea that has pervaded Cuban minds for 500 years, mainly that farmers are illiterate, uneducated and engage in the most unpleasant work in Cuban society. Many in the U.S. also perceive farming as unprofitable, difficult work that commands little prestige. This perception must be changed, especially when the average age of our farmers in the U.S. is over 57.
In order for urban agriculture to produce a significant percentage of a city’s food, intensive growing methods are required. This means a new way of thinking about agriculture. This paradigm of intensive growing, with organic methods, values a knowledge-based labor force where adaptation is more valuable than uniformity. It also creates opportunities for jobs, whether it is propagation stations that keep the urban farms flush with plant “starts” to vermicomposting systems (worm composting) or other recycling of organic material that urban farms will need to maintain their fertility levels.
Individuals trained in soil management, pest management and marketing will be needed. Businesses that add value to crops through simple processing such as slicing, chopping, and canning – or by actually cooking prepared foods – have a place, as well. While some of these jobs would be technical and highly educated professions, the sector is also a perfect fit for youth development, where young people can be gainfully employed while also developing a healthy relationship with food.
There are cities that have developed and are developing incredibly successful urban agriculture projects, often through the work of various non-profits. However, what is missing is the dedicated political backing for urban agriculture. Cuba has completely institutionalized urban agriculture, with departments of urban agriculture and now, suburban agriculture housed within the ministry of agriculture. I was shocked when I saw that, because I would love to see the Baltimore or San Francisco department of urban agriculture. It is this institutionalization that will take urban agriculture from the fringe of grant funded projects eternally searching for resources to established programs that have financial and political backing by our cities.