Rep. Stevens surveys farming in Cuba
Posted on March 7, 2013 |
By John Flowers
MONTPELIER — Organic vegetable farmer and independent state Rep. Will
Stevens of Shoreham has always sought to widen his horizons when it
comes to agriculture.
He did that in a big way this past month during a 10-day trip to Cuba,
where he got a first-hand glimpse of how farming is conducted on an
island nation with scant resources and without a profit motive.
Stevens was one of six participants in the "Vermont-Cuba Sustainable and
Organic Agricultural Exchange Program." It was a research tour organized
by the Vermont Caribbean Institute, aimed at promoting and developing
relationships and sustainable projects in organic agriculture, food
security, community health and resilience, appropriate technology and
land stewardship to "improve human well-being and the health of the
It was a travel opportunity that intrigued Stevens, who with his wife,
Judy, owns and operates Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham. Cuba has been
off-limits for American tourism since Fidel Castro came to power more
than 50 years ago. Stevens had heard about organic farming in Cuba and
how agriculture had to be done on a shoestring due to the directives of
the communist regime and as a consequence of the longstanding U.S. trade
"It's a highly regulated economy and society," Stevens, a member of the
Vermont House Agriculture Committee, said.
Stevens — who paid his own way — and five other Vermonters headed to
Cuba on Feb. 3 for an educational experience that would include seven
days in Havana and a few days in the communities of Santa Clara and
Trinidad. They visited a half-dozen farms, mostly urban organic gardens
known as "organoponicos." These urban gardens — very small, basic and
labor intensive — came to the fore out of necessity around 20 years ago,
after the fall of the Soviet Union, noted Stevens. The Soviet Union had
been heavily subsidizing Cuba's agricultural industry through low-cost
gasoline and pesticides. But that assistance largely evaporated with the
fall of the Iron Curtain, forcing Cubans to reinvent their farming
industry with few resources.
"They had to adapt, or die," he said.
Stevens saw farmers tend to crops with implements that were jerry-rigged
or welded together. Since necessity is the mother of invention, the
Spartan conditions have forced the Cuban farmers to be more resourceful.
Stevens took photos of a farmer who had forced methane from his on-site
manure into an air-tight bag, using it to fuel his gas stove. Farmers
are breeding livestock that can provide them with milk as well as meat.
He noted that many of the organoponicos engage in vermicomposting. The
farmers place their food waste into a trough and add red wiggler worms,
which feast on the waste and generate fertile compost for the crops. The
primary crops grown on the organoponicos, according to Stevens, were
sweet potatoes, green cabbage, beans, beets, tomatoes, lettuce and bok choi.
A U.S. farmer would take that produce to the market in hopes of getting
top dollar. Not in Cuba, Stevens said, where there is a different
economic paradigm prescribed by the ruling regime.
"Economics for them is the socialist model of 'Everyone should have
something to eat,'" Stevens said.
The Cuban government owns all the land and is trying to get more of it
into agricultural production, including areas that are still idle after
being abandoned by people who fled the nation during the revolution. The
government also regulates and parses out seeds, Stevens said. There are
few free enterprise opportunities for farmers, who can count on a wage
of around $20 per month, he said. Citizens survive by living frugally in
a marketplace with low prices and because the government provides basic
necessities such as health care and education, he noted.
While Western society preaches one can always be better or do better,
the Cuban culture is more about being grateful for what you have,
according to Stevens.
"Their mission was to feed people in a way that was environmentally
beneficial and in a way that allows prosperity for everyone," Stevens said.
The visiting group wasn't regulated or barred from speaking with anyone
during the trip, according to Stevens. And while Cuba has a different
culture, climate and political system than Vermont, Stevens said he
could see some similarities between the two lands. Both have had to
adapt to a scarcity of resources and both have people imbued with a
spirit of helping one another.
Stevens said he greatly enjoyed the trip to Cuba and would definitely go
back. He hopes that at some point, Cuban farmers can come to Vermont and
see how agriculture works in the Green Mountain State. The trip has
prompted Stevens to think more about his farming priorities, especially
as they relate to workers.
"My take-home message is, 'It's about the people,'" Stevens said.
And while governmental relations between the U.S. and Cuba remain
frosty, Stevens said most Cubans are looking forward to the day when
they will see more Americans coming over to visit.
"They said, 'Let Americans know we want a normal relationship with them.
Let them know we are just people, too,'" Steven said of a common refrain
from Cubans he spoke with.
Reporter John Flowers is at email@example.com.