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Organic Vegetable Farms Bloom in Havana
compiled by Bill Caspary

(from notes by Ken Estey, and observations by other I.I.S. members; edited by Rima Caspary. Bill takes full responsibility for what follows.)


Organic Vegetable Farms Bloom in Havana

An Unusual Use of Military Power

The organic vegetable cooperative glows green on a dry rocky plain, once even unsuitable for cattle grazing. Despite the inhospitable terrain, fertile soil is built up in raised beds from composted organic matter. Water is pumped from 60 meters below. Lettuces predominate, along with kale, onions, and various herbs. Even in the intense heat, drip irrigation keeps the plants cool and healthy. Aromatic herbs and insect-repellent trees provide natural pest management. Beds are cultivated meticulously by hand, in long hours of stoop labor. Not a weed is visible.

Environmental and health concerns, and the economic crisis of the early 1990´s, motivate organic farming. Artificial fertilizers and pesticides are now prohibitively expensive. The organic vegetable farm was initiated by the army, which, facing severe budget cuts, began starting economic enterprises. This farm was established as an autonomous cooperative, with a state loan for equipment and supplies. Half of the net income, after production expenses and base salaries, goes into debt reduction; the other half is distributed among the members.

The co-op was begun by a retired army veteran, who recruited other retirees, many of whom were also veterans. There are 18 workers, two of them women. The co-op is governed democratically in regular meetings of all members. The chairman is elected and subject to recall, but has been reelected through the co-op´s 8 years. There are technical specialists for equipment, supplies, and agricultural techniques. Chairman and technicians work side by side with the members, plus extra hours for planning. The chairman can fire workers who do not contribute their share, and has occasionally done so. Many people desire to work in this cooperative, so the incentive is strong to keep one´s position by carrying one´s share of the load. Members receive a small basic wage, with the specialists and the chairman receiving almost 20% more. Profits are distributed in approximately equal shares; specialists receive 5% more, and the chairman, 8%. The modest pay differential is justified by the extra hours the specialists work, and by their expertise. Workers who innovate are rewarded with a family visit to a restaurant, a beach vacation, or other valued recreation. The work is very difficult and the income quite modest, but there is high morale, and in good years the workers can afford a few amenities like television sets and bicycles.

Growing More Organic Co-ops

Purchasers, both institutions and individuals, come daily to the cooperative to buy fresh picked produce. The co-op´s few trucks also take food to neighborhood markets. Buyers are consistently found for the entire harvest, without overproduction and waste. This farm is a member of an association of organic vegetable cooperatives, which share information and support. Some factories have their own organic gardens to supply quality food for their workers. A city government central organization provides information, training, and technology, and coop leaders attend frequent training sessions.

Given the co-op´s evident success, and the level of consumer and public support for it, I.I.S. members inquired about the possibility of expansion. Availability of land is not an obstacle since the co-op uses otherwise unproductive land. Additional financing is needed, but is available and repayable from profits. The limited availability of animal waste for organic fertilizer is one obstacle. Scarcity of transport for getting food to market is another serious limitation. Perhaps new small local organic farms will grow up, rather than this one expanding, but in any case, there seems to be a trend towards cooperative, organic, vegetable farming in today´s Cuba.

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