Urban Agriculture in Cuba – Organopónico Alamar

Agriculture in Cuba… I’d heard a lot about it, and done some research into before we left for our trip, but I still wasn’t too sure what to expect. I was imagining every little corner of the Havana covered in potted plants, with little courtyards overflowing with home grown veggies. While I saw some of that, I saw a lot more larger “urban” gardens than I’d imagined. The particular garden that we visited, Organopónico Vivero Alamar, I would considered it more of a “suburban farm” since it was on the outskirts of town and decent sized. More specifically the garden is now 11 hectares (~27 acres) , producing over 300,000 tons of produce a year for local residents. Founded in 1997, with just 5 employees, the farm employs 174 people and is now one of Havana’s largest and most successful urban gardens. In addition to selling fresh fruit and vegetables, the farm produced dried herbs, condiments and sauces, as well as compost and substrate for home gardeners. 

Nationally urban gardens account for well over 1.5 million tons of of produce sold every year (with some estimates closer to 3.5 million tons). Havana gets over 90% of their fresh produce from the many urban farms and gardens. Over 400,000 Cubans work in urban agriculture; almost all of it organic. While this is an impressive achievement, it came out of a difficult situation. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1991, Cuba lost its major trading partner and entered into what is commonly known as the  “Special Period.”Most notable for the agriculture sector, Cuba had severe shortages of gasoline, diesel, fertilizers and pestides. This forced a sustainable agriculture revolution  as farmers went back to the basics, relying on permaculture techniques, natural pest control, and hands-on farming techniques. Alamar itself only has one small tractor for all 11 hectares of land, favoring oxen to both turn the land and produce nutrient rich manure. In total, using organic techniques keeps over 150 tons of pesticides and chemicals out of the earth, out of the supply chain, and away from humans. 

Even in Cuba you’re not safe from Monsanto. The garden manager that we spoke to spent a few minutes refuting all of Monsanto’s claims about why organic isn’t feasible on a large scale, from costs to efficiency to human resources. The short version is that Alamar boasts 40% profits, which would be difficult to do if they were paying for all the conventional inputs. These profit margins also allow them to keep their prices 10-20% below state prices.

Environmentally this is all great news, and really quite remarkable given what they’ve had to deal with and the limited resources available. Yet it is important to remember that they were granted use of the land permanently for free (with 3% of revenue paid to the government),
which takes a major cost out of the equation. Their labor costs are also fixed outrageously low by the government, another major cost for most farmers. Again, the success they have achieved under the restrictions imposed is remarkable. Their philosophy of working with and supporting the land is much more sustainable than the attitude of the majority of US farmers who seem to want to get as much out of the land as possible, without giving anything back.  I just hope that once the embargo/blockade lifts knowledge can flow more freely to and from Cuba, so that their methods of sustainable farming can persist for generations to come. 

Alamar & Agriculture by the numbers:
11 hectares – area of Alamar
300,000 tons fresh produce grown by Alamar
174 people employed by Alamar
90% of employees live in the immediate community
90% of Havana’s fresh produce produced by urban gardens
60% of vegetables consumed by Cuban are local & organic
400,000 Cubans employed in agriculture nationally
150 million tons pesticides and chemicals NOT used
4 – 6 crop rotations per year
4 – 6 kg of organic matter inputs per sq meter
80% inputs produced at Alamar

All photos © 2012 Tami Weiss