Cuba’s urban farming program a stunning success
From the Global Edition of the New York Times
The Associated Press June 8, 2008
HAVANA: For Miladis Bouza, the global food crisis arrived two decades ago. Now, her efforts to climb out of it could serve as a model for people around the world struggling to feed their families.
Bouza was a research biologist, living a solidly middle-class existence, when the collapse of the Soviet Union — and the halt of its subsidized food shipments to Cuba — effectively cut her government salary to US$3 a month. Suddenly, a trip to the grocery store was out of reach.
So she quit her job, and under a program championed by then-Defense Minister Raul Castro, asked the government for the right to farm an overgrown, half-acre lot near her Havana home. Now, her husband tends rows of tomatoes, sweet potatoes and spinach, while Bouza, 48, sells the produce at a stall on a busy street.
Neighbors are happy with cheap vegetables fresh from the field. Bouza never lacks for fresh produce, and she pulls in between 2,000 to 5,000 pesos (US$100-250) a month — many times the average government salary of 408 pesos (US$19).
“All that money is mine,” she said. “The only thing I have to buy is protein” — meat.
Cuba’s urban farming program has been a stunning, and surprising, success. The farms, many of them on tiny plots like Bouza’s, now supply much of Cuba’s vegetables. They also provide 350,000 jobs nationwide with relatively high pay and have transformed eating habits in a nation accustomed to a less-than-ideal diet of rice and beans and canned goods from Eastern Europe.
From 1989-93, Cubans went from eating an average of 3,004 calories a day to only 2,323, according to the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization, as shelves emptied of the Soviet goods that made up two-thirds of Cuba’s food. Today, they eat 3,547 calories a day — more than what the U.S. government recommends for American citizens.
“It’s a really interesting model looking at what’s possible in a nation that’s 80 percent urban,” said Catherine Murphy, a California sociologist who spent a decade studying farms in Havana. “It shows that cities can produce huge amounts of their own food, and you get all kinds of social and ecological benefits.”
Of course, urban farms might not be such a success in a healthy, competitive economy.
As it is, productivity is low at Cuba’s large, state-run farms where workers lack incentives. Government-supplied rations — mostly imported from the U.S. — provide such staples as rice, beans and cooking oil, but not fresh produce. Importers bring in only what central planners want, so the market doesn’t correct for gaps. And since most land is owned by the state, developers are not competing for the vacant lots that can become plots for vegetables.
Still, experts say the basic idea behind urban farming has a lot of promise.
“It’s land that otherwise would be sitting idle. It requires little or no transportation to get (produce) to market,” said Bill Messina, an agricultural economist at the University of Florida in Gainesville. “It’s good anyway you look at it.”
And with fuel prices and food shortages causing unrest and hunger across the world, many say the Cuban model should spread.
“There are certain issues where we think Cuba has a lot to teach the world. Urban agriculture is one of them,” said Beat Schmid, coordinator of Cuba programs for the charity Oxfam International.
Other countries have experimented with urban farming — Cuba’s initial steps were modeled after a green belt surrounding Shanghai. But nowhere has urban farming been used so widely to transform the way a country feeds itself.
“As the global food crisis receives attention, this is something that we need to be looking at,” Murphy said. “Havana is an unlikely, really successful model where no one would expect one to come from.”
Now that Raul Castro is president, many expect him to expand the program he began as an experiment in the early 1990s.
One of the first plots he opened was the “organoponico” on Fifth Avenue and 44th Street in the ritzy Havana neighborhood of Miramar. The half-block farm — owned by a government agency — is surrounded by apartment buildings and houses, but also offices of foreign companies, a Spanish bank and the South African Embassy.
Long troughs brim with arugula, spinach, radishes and basil, and few of the 20,000 square feet (1,850 square meters) are wasted.
One technician tends compost that serves as natural fertilizer, while another handles natural protection from pests, surrounding delicate spinach shoots with strong-smelling celery to ward off insects. Such measures have ecological benefits but were born of necessity: Neither commercial fertilizer nor herbicide is reliably available.
Three workers tend the crops and another three sell them from a brightly painted stall.
Key to the operation is something once unheard of in Cuba: 80 percent of the profits go straight to the workers’ pockets, providing them an average of 1,500 pesos (US$71) a month.
“Those salaries are higher than doctors, than lawyers,” said Roberto Perez, the 58-year-old agronomist who runs the farm. “The more they produce, the more they make. That’s fundamental to get high productivity.”
Customers say the farm has given them not only access to affordable food, but also a radical change in their cuisine.
“Nobody used to eat vegetables,” said David Leon, 50, buying two pounds (about a kilo) of Swiss chard. “People’s nutrition has improved a lot. It’s a lot healthier. And it tastes good.”
Associated Press writer Andrea Rodriguez contributed to this report.