Virginia Farming Workshop, and Cuban AgroEcology Tour: La Palma Farm, Pinar del Rio Province

Introduction to Permaculture and Organic Farming and Gardening Workshop 2020

Saturday August 8, 2020 2.30-8.30 pm. Cost: $75

Day Spring Farm, 842 Buena Vista, Shacklefords, VA 23156

Click the link in the title for all the details. Social distancing and face coverings required.

Organic Farming Workshop 2020-1

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Cuban AgroEcology Tour: La Palma farm, Pinar del Rio Province

Roberto or Eduardo cultivating tobacco with oxen. La Palma, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling

Here’s another post about the Organic Growers School Agroecolgy Tour I participated in back when we could travel! I feel so fortunate to have made this trip this January. You can read about other parts of this Tour under the Cuban Agriculture category or at these links:

My Cuba farming trip.

Alamar Urban Organic Farm

Finca Marta

Finca Hoyo Bonito Bean Seed Bank

After our initial stay in Havana, we traveled west for three hours to stay a few days in the Viñales Valley in the province of Pinar del Rio.

Day 5 – Saturday January 11, morning

Our day started with an 8 am breakfast at our casa particulare in Viñales. We enjoyed fruit, tea, coffee, juice, cookies, bread, pancakes, cheese sandwiches, and ham. No eggs today.

The oxen team at la Palma, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
Photo by Pam Dawling

We took our tour bus to visit the ANAP (National Association of Small Farmers) cooperative agricultural project La Palma. ANAP farmers have less than 67 hectares each. According to Wikipedia, currently ANAP members produce 52% of the vegetables, 67% of the corn, and 85% of the tobacco grown in Cuba.

We met tobacco producers Roberto and Eduardo, who are brothers. Each farm is allowed a certain tobacco quota by the Cuban government. They are growing 40,000 tobacco plants as their quota and another 40,000 using a neighbor’s irrigated land in trade for their use of some dry land. Tobacco needs irrigated land, and their neighbor did not have the other resources to grow a tobacco crop this year. The government agreed to this swap because of the poor state of the national economy.

How to hang tobacco leaves on sticks. La Palma farm, Pinar del Rio, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

La Palma also grows vegetables (tomatoes, beans with some interplanted corn plants to protect the beans from pests), and cassava. They use oxen for cultivating the fields. We had some juice, a taste of red mamey fruit (Pouteria sapota), and the chance to buy cigars for $2 each.

Tomato plants at La Palma, Pinar del Rio, Cuba, grown right up against the amazing limestone cliffs.
Photo by Pam Dawling

Next we paid a visit to a farm with a small cigar manufacturing business, Manolo Tobacco Farm, for a demonstration of cigar-making, and a chance to buy different kinds of cigars. All the cigars are rolled by hand and the men demonstrating the technique are also professional in engaging the audience. After rolling a cigar for us, the demonstrator lit it, showed how to smoke cigars and passed it round.

Closeup of limestone cliff at La Palma, Rio del Pinar, Cuba
Photo by Pam Dawling

See this video of cigar making at Manolo Tobacco Farm, made by Franny’s Farmacy, two of the other people on my Organic Growers School Tour:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=X_mXuImolMQ

At this place I was dismayed to find a nasty toilet (not the first of this trip): no seat, no paper, no flush. The toilet tank was not connected to a water supply. The water at the sink was very slow, and even though a bucket was provided, filling it to flush the toilet seemed very challenging. How can a tourist attraction have such terrible toilets? Why are there not more composting toilets?

Cuba, at least in the northwest, suffers from a shortage of water, and ancient mainline plumbing that leaks a lot. When we arrived at the José Martí International Airport in Havana, an announcement came over the loudspeaker that the water supply had been temporarily shut off to the restrooms. Havana has a natural port, but no river drains into it. See Rivers in Cuba map to appreciate the unfortunate geography!

The Albear Aqueduct was constructed in Havana in 1858, in a neoclassical style and still supplies 20% of Havana’s water. A marvel of mid-19th century engineering, the water comes from the de Vento springs by gravity. This fresh water helped the city reduce the terrible cholera epidemics and earned a gold medal at the 1878 Paris Exposition

Tourist transportation in Viñales: vintage cars and horse and cart.
Photo by Pam Dawling

Finca Marta Agroecological Farm, Cuba

Terraced vegetable beds at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling

In early January 2020, I was part of the Organic Growers School Agroecology Tour of Cuba. I have already posted about a couple of the places we visited. Click the category Cuban Agriculture. Here I will tell you about Finca Marta in Artemisa.

After breakfast at the casa particulare where we stayed, we gathered at 9 am to ride our bus to Finca Marta, a wonderful agroecological farm.

Finca Marta Apiary sign.
Photo Pam Dawling

Fernandito Funes Monzote provided a talk on agroecology  in Cuba and a tour of the farm. Finca Marta is a very tidy, productive, well-organized, sustainable, beautiful farm. The terraced stone-edged vegetable beds grew many kinds of lettuce, kale, mustards, arugula, mizuna. [I wonder why callaloo isn’t grown in Cuba, as it is in Jamaica].

Farmer Fernandito Funes Monzote showing us the vegetable beds, terraced on contour, at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo by Pam Dawling

Finca Marta has 720 hives of Italian/Spanish honeybees, which produce 10 tons of honey each year. Because there is no cold weather, bees fly all year, and they are not troubled by Colony Collapse Disorder. Also no Varroa mites, or tracheal mites. Their hives spend several months at the coast, gathering mangrove nectar. They spend several months in the mountains, gathering nectar from a kind of morning glory, then the winter on the home farm. We were encouraged to gear up and look in the hives they were inspecting, and observe the honey house and the van they use [as a mobile workshop?]

Beehives at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling
Honey extractor and frame storage at Finca Marta, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

Finca Marta has a stone barn for two mares, 4 cows and geese. The livestock are closed in every evening. In the morning, the barn is washed down, and the manure goes out a drain into a temporary holding pond. After stirring the manure, a gate is opened, letting it into a closed tank. The resulting methane is piped into the kitchen as a cooking fuel, and the slurry continues to settling tanks, later becoming fertilizer for the gardens.

Seedling house at Finca Marta, Artemis, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

They have greenhouses and hoophouses covered with shadecloth or insect netting, not clear plastic. One is for seedlings in 13 x 20 Speedling-type plug flats. Others were growing tomatoes and cucumbers.

An overview of the vegetable beds at Finca Marta, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

Mostly greens are being grown in the outdoor beds (it was winter when we were there). They sell to restaurants. They have some drip irrigation, but also spend 2.5 hours each day hand-watering. They also grow cassava and taro.

We had lunch at the farm, at our own expense. 20 CUC. 1 CUC=$1 US.

Our lunch spread at Finca Marta, Cuba

The centerpiece was a leg of pork which had been roasting in an earth oven since 8 pm the day before. There were many vegetables grown on the farm, fruit juice, wine and beer. This was a particularly good meal.

My lunch at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba.
Photo Pam Dawling

After lunch we worked for a short time on a service project. We harvested hibiscus flowers (aka Roselle, Jamaica, Sorrel) from pruned off branches. These get dried and sold for tea (think Red Zinger).

The wash-pack area at Finca Marta, Artemisa, Cuba
Photo Pam Dawling

A question by a reader prompted me to look on the web, where I found a slideshow in English. If you can read Spanish, there is more info online.

Click to access Finca%20Marta.pdf

And a video

For more on Finca Marta, see Agriculture for Life by Fernando Funes

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tUx4EUCKo50

 

Growing and Saving Seeds: my Seed Garden Slideshow and a Cuban Bean Seed Bank

 

At the Organic Growers School Spring Conference I gave my presentation The Seed Garden, about combining growing some seed crops alongside lots of vegetable crops – a way for vegetable growers to diversify and grow seed of a few special crops either for themselves or to sell for some extra income and to keep a chosen variety available. I included information on selecting desirable characteristics and making an improved strain of that variety.

You can watch the slideshow here, by clicking on the diagonal arrow to increase the screen size and then the right pointing triangular arrow:

I also took the opportunity to add a few more of my slideshows to my collection on SlideShare.

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Meanwhile I’ve been sorting out more photos from my Cuba trip, and I want to tell you about a bean seed bank at Finca Hoyo Bonito I visited during our day traveling from Havana, west for three hours to the Viñales Valley in the province of Pinar del Rio.

The seed farm has a bank containing 250 varieties of bean seed. It’s a hobby for the retired woman growing and saving the beans. Her goal is to get a hundred pounds of each variety. She gives bean seed to any farmer who asks, with no requirement to return the investment. (this is different from some seed banks, which require growers to repay the “loan”)

Finca Hoyo Bonito bean seed bank, Pinar del Rio, Cuba
250 bean seed varieties are kept in this tiny seed bank.
The Seed Conservator, or Banker at Finca Hoyo Bonito. Note the reuse of ubiquitous plastic water bottles to store some of the seeds. Tourists need to drink only bottled water.
Bean seed has a limited shelf life, and so must be grown out frequently.
Here is a display of just some of the bean varieties.
Finca Hoyo Bonito Bean Seed Bank, Pinar del Rio, Cuba

Here is a short video about Finca Hoyo Bonito. It’s in Spanish, naturally!

Alamar Urban Organic Farm

I mentioned before that I took part in the Organic Growers School Cuba Agroecolgy Tour in January. I’ve made some progress sorting through my photos, and this post is about Organopónico Vivero Alamar (Alamar Urban Organic Farm) on the outskirts of Havana. Alamar is one of the largest and most successful urban farms in Havana, and it is very impressive. It was founded in 1997.

Alamar Urban Organic Farm, Havana, Cuba

During the Special Period in Time of Peace in Cuba (1991-2000), an extended period of economic hardship following the collapse of the Soviet Union combined with a US trade blockade, Cubans were thrown back on their own resources.  This was described to me as “Cuba went to bed with privilege and woke up with nothing.” Food, fuel and equipment were not imported, and people began producing food wherever they could. Because there were no fertilizers or pesticides, vegetables and fruit were grown organically. In time, Cubans came to see the superiority of organic farming, and today the urban farms and small-scale food-producing farms continue to be organic (Cuban organic standards are not the same as USDA requirements). Commodity crops (tobacco, coffee, sugar) however, are not usually organically grown.

Farm manager and educator Isis with a lettuce plug

Alamar Urban Organic Farm covers 11 hectares (27 acres) in a residential dormitory suburb, surrounded by  grey prefabricated concrete apartment blocks in the classic Soviet style. Like many Cuban farms, there are many and varied tropical tree fruits, and permaculture is easily practiced. Sadly, it wasn’t mango season when I visited, although early-ripening mango varieties were in flower. Here is a fruit tree I lost the name of:

Alamar and other organic farms have many tree fruits. I forgot the name of this one

Alamar has 125 workers, with an average age in the “upper middle age” bracket. They produce vegetables and ornamental plants for sale, as well as medicinal and spiritual plants. 90% of their sales are to the public and 10% to hospitals.  The Cuban government ensures that hospitals and schools get provided for, I think. They keep bulls (steers?) and rabbits for manure, and oxen and horses for cultivation. Rabbit meat is not popular.

A large screen house at Alamar Organic Farm

Many of the crop plants are inside shade and/or screen houses, which took quite a hit from Hurricane Irma. Agricultural buildings are mostly pole barns thatched with leaves of the Royal Palm. Thus they can be rebuilt after hurricanes destroy them.

A large shade house for landscape plants at Alamar Urban Organic Farm

Vegetables are on raised beds. Almost all seed has to be imported and is not organic. Cubans we spoke with generally thought the humid climate would be too hard for seed growing. Personally, I wonder if that’s true. I think a home-grown seed business would be a good step towards more food sovereignty, but it’s not for me to say, really!

Alamar makes their own potting soil from 50% humus, 25% compost and 25% rice hulls. Cubans eat a lot of rice, and annually import 300,000 tons of cheap Vietnamese  rice which needs a lot of cleaning.

Alamar urban organic Farm vegetable beds

Alamar is trialing biochar as animal bedding, to reduce smell, and charge the biochar with nutrients and micro-organisms before it is used on the fields. They have insectary plantings (flowering plants to attract beneficial insects and birds) at the heads of many vegetable beds. They use mung beans as a cover crop and to grow bean sprouts.

Hot climate version of oregano at Alamar Urban Organic farm

The tropical “oregano” in the photo above looks nothing like our temperate climate oregano. It is almost a succulent, and the leaves are much bigger than we are used to .

Alamar has tried growing mushrooms, but they are not commonly eaten in Cuba. They also make value-added products: condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles.  Canning is not easy, as glass canning jars are not available and there are regulations against plastic jars.

Beautiful bed of pak choy at Alamar Urban Organic Farm
Large shade house and vegetable beds at Alamar Urban Organic Farm

They make for use and sale both compost and vermicompost. Below are two photos of open air concrete worm bins, which they cover with tarps.

Alamar Farm manager Isis shows us some of their worm bins
Large worm bins under shade at Alamar Urban Organic Farm

Alamar also has a Beneficial Insect Breeding Laboratory.  Click the link to watch a short video.

Alamar Urban organic Farm has its own Beneficial Insect Rearing Lab

Another source of income for Alamar is workshops and courses in organic agriculture and tours such as ours. Cuba geared up for a big increase in American tourists during the Obama administration but has seen fewer tourists since Trump introduced stricter criteria for Americans visiting Cuba.

There are several types of agricututal co-operatives in Cuba. Alamar is a Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production). In 1993, the Cuban state handed over agricultural land to co-operatives “in usufruct”, which means “the right to enjoy the use and advantages of another’s property short of the destruction or waste of its substance.”

My Cuba farming trip. Conference season!

I’ve just got back from a wonderful Agroecology Tour of Cuba with the Organic Growers School. Click the link to sign up for the 2021 tour. I have lots of photos and much to say, but so little time today! In 9 days we visited 9 farms, had several speakers address aspects of life (and particularly farming and environmental issues) in Cuba, had a couple of walking tours, ate many delicious farm-to-table type dinners and still had time for a salsa lesson

We are having trouble with our internet connection today, so this post will either be short or very short.


I’m headed to the Little Rock, Arkansas conference of the Southern Sustainable Working Group

Go to my Events Page for a full list of where to look for me. Not long after getting home from SSAWG I’m headed to PASA in Lancaster, Pennsylvania

Then the West Virginia Small Farms Conference

Then OAK, in Louisville, Kentucky,

Then Organic Growers School in Mars Hill, North Carolina