The soles of my traveler’s shoes…*
There’s a lot to learn – and unlearn – about Cuba, especially on the food front. That’s a key takeaway from my recent trip to the island nation, as part of a people-to-people exchange with the Kellogg Fellows Leadership Alliance (KFLA). During a packed ten-day adventure, our group met with a range of people across Cuba, including scholars and local experts. In addition to learning about Cuba’s diverse culture, we explored the country’s health, educational, political and agricultural/food systems.
This is the first in a series that will share stories and news about Cuba.
Finca Ecológica El Paraiso: farm to table, food hub, family farm and more
I’m writing my first post about an interesting organic farm (finca agroecologica) and family operated restaurant we visited in the Pinar del Río province. Finca Ecológica El Paraiso is located in the Valle de Viñales, which is a Unesco World Heritage Site. The area is breathtakingly beautiful. Because of its proximity to the Parque Nacional Viñales – as well as being in a region famous for traditional agricultural cultivation, complete with tobacco production, drying houses and hand-rolled cigars – Viñales is popular with tourists from all over the world.
During our visit to Finca Ecológica, we enjoyed an impressive lunch and a farm tour offered by Eddie Rodriguez, a 22-year old member of the extended family that operates the enterprise. The restaurant is highly rated by tourists on various travel websites. The friendly staff (some are members of the family that operates the farm/restaurant operation) is happy to tour individuals and groups around the site.
Some interesting things about Ecológica.
- First, it’s part of a farm-to-table movement that is booming in Cuba (Nick Miroff of the Washington Post termed it a “culinary revolution” in a piece published last summer).
- It also speaks to the growing trend for small business enterprises being encouraged by the Cuban government as the economy diversifies and land continues to shift into private ownership.
- Many of these small businesses are paladares, privately owned restaurants, often found in homes. But there are also an increasing number of small farmers taking advantage of the opportunity to work their own land.
A (very) brief (and incomplete) history lesson about food/ag in Cuba
To understand aspects of Finca Ecológica, you need a contextual understanding of how agriculture and the food system operate in Cuba.
Agricultural/land reform was a key part of the 1959 revolution. Prior to the revolution, it is estimated that “…eight percent of the landowners controlled more than 70 percent of the land, and U.S. owners controlled 25 percent of Cuban land.”
As part of the first revolutionary reforms, large landowners had their property confiscated, although private holdings of up to 16 acres were allowed. As part of the reforms, hundreds of thousands of those who had worked as farm laborers were given land to cultivate. But the state retained ownership of about 70% of the land.
With the collapse of centrally planned Eastern Bloc economies and the Soviet Union (1989-1991), Cuba was thrust into an incredibly difficult situation. It lost both the major markets for its products…and most of its foreign assistance (including fertilizers, pesticides, farm equipment and oil). Agricultural production plummeted. Today, Cuba remains a net importer of food.
On the flip side, because of the limited availability of agricultural inputs for the last few decades, Cuba has excelled in agroecological and small-scale production, although the nation still faces real challenges on the food and agricultural front, including the imperative need to produce more food.
Cuba has continued to receive oil and chemical fertilizers from Venezuela (in exchange for the expertise of thousands of Cuban medical professionals who work in Venezuela). However, with Venezuela in crisis, the future seems uncertain, despite growing tourism and a move to normalize relations with the United States.
One article I recently read indicates that more than 20% of the “economically active” Cuban population is employed in agriculture (and the authors didn’t include related activities, such as shipping and processing, in that statistic). Agriculture is a vital part of the Cuban economy.
President Raul Castro has emphasized food security as a national priority. Since 2007-2008, he has instituted a series of reforms that have encouraged private farmers (and cooperatives) to lease land for production. Castro has also made it possible for farmers to sell directly to consumers. Urban agriculture models are also being used with good effect in parts of Cuba. (I’ll be writing about Vivero Alamar, an urban farm in the Havana metropolitan area, in a future post).
While the U.S. maintains a trade embargo with Cubans (the Cubans refer to this as a “bloqueo”), agricultural commodities are exempt from that embargo, provided they meet “certain legal criteria.” Learn more here.
Back to Finca Ecológica El Paraiso…
Here’s what I noticed on our visit. First, the food. Abundant and delicious, served family style. I’d never had taro chips; they were addictive…. and made on site. My first thought: as the business evolves, will the family package and market products they produce on site? I also learned from a Cuban companion that taro is often a first food for babies; it’s pureed with black beans into a soup. My new friend told me it’s still his go-to comfort food when he visits home.
The restaurant serves a variety of meats; pigs, chickens and rabbits are raised on site, about 30-40 feet from the kitchen where food is prepared. Animal manure is used as compost.
Eddie Rodriguez, who spoke with me on our visit, indicated that they trade with other local farmers for items they want to serve, but don’t produce. The farm is producing an impressive variety of food products, many in raised beds that are terraced to prevent erosion.
Among the farm’s crops are plantains and bananas, taro, squash, lettuce, beans, peppers, radish, beets, bok choy, onions, okra, herbs, guava, cashews, moringa and more. Crop rotation and companion planting are utilized.
In terms of irrigation, the farm maintains small reservoirs. They are working on a new tank system that will use gravity to feed a drip system. Finca Ecológica also has a training area, where small producers gather to share knowledge with another, part of the campesino-to-campesino movement that supports agroecology and sustainability.
Eddie Rodriguez is part of the extended family of 38 that operates the farm and restaurant. Family members take turns working shifts at both farm and restaurant, usually four per shift, although the harvest requires more people.
In total, the family farms about 22 acres. (Cuba measures land in the metric system, in hectares. One hectare is equal to 2.471 acres or 10,000 square meters). While much of what they produce is used in the restaurant operation, Eddie told me about 10-15% of what they produce is given to the local pre-school and a senior citizen center, both of which serve lunch to program participants. Family members also use what’s produced. Some is shared with neighbors. They don’t engage in direct sales of their products, except through the restaurant operation.
The sense of hospitality with which we were met at Finca Ecológica was characteristic of the hospitality we encountered wherever we went throughout our visit. Much of the hospitality centered around food, but there was an incredible willingness to speak with us, to share experiences and information, whether it was about the health system, education or politics.
One wise man told us, “The problems between us are not our problems.” That was a good frame through which to consider the trip.
Editor’s Note: I’ve been on a steep learning curve about Cuba and have recently been reading a great deal about both the nation’s history and current events. Here are a few resources that I’ve found helpful.
- UC Berkeley professor Miguel Altieri has recently written an interesting piece for The Conversation that provides excellent context about land reform in Cuba. In it he argues that sustainable agriculture in Cuba may be at risk as U.S.-Cuban relations thaw. Read the piece here.
- Dr. Altieri and Cuban researcher Fernando R. Funes-Monzote published an article entitled The Paradox of Cuban Agriculture in 2012; it provides important contextual information about Cuban food production.
- Raj Patel, one of the most knowledgeable food systems people I know, penned a piece for Slate about ecology lessons from Cuba. While it was written more than four years ago, it provides valuable background information about the Cuban food system. Read that piece here.
- For a 2015 UC Food Observer Q&A with Columbia University’s Dr. Pedro Sanchez about the Cuban food system, click here.
- Another important resource about Cuba is Marc Frank’s Cuban Revelations: Behind the Scenes in Havana. Marc is a journalist who has lived in Cuba for well over two decades. I had an opportunity to meet him while visiting Havana and he is AH-mazing. His book covers an incredible range of territory and is a must read for anyone wanting to learn more about Cuba. I haven’t let it out of my sight. Marc is also writing articles for a range of publications, including Financial Times and Reuters. I’m following him on Twitter and reading each of his articles as they are published.
- Cuba’s Agricultural Transformations, a 2015 academic paper published by City University of New York, is an interesting read.
- The USDA has produced a number of publications about Cuba, agriculture and the U.S. A recent piece is U.S.-Cuba Agricultural Trade: Past, Present and Possible Future.
* From “The Littlest Birds Sing the Prettiest Songs”, the Be Good Tanyas.