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

More on Summer Pests, August Growing for Market, Year-Round Hoophouse Book Update, Mother Earth News Post on Repairing Hoses

Hornworm on tomato leaf.
Photo Pam Dawling

More on Summer Pests

Last week I wrote about hornworms. The Alabama IPM Newsletter has a good compilation of articles on tomato worms and various other insect pests. Hopefully you don’t need to read up about all of these!

Worms on My Tomatoes!

Horse fly: pest behavior and control strategies

Grape Root Borer

Spotted Wing Drosophila and African Fig Fly Detected in Monitoring Traps

Slug Management in Vegetables

Scout Soybeans Closely for Stink Bugs in August

Hang in there! Be careful what you wish for in terms of early frosts!


The August issue of Growing for Market is out. The lead article is Serving the Underserved by Jane Tanner. It’s about small farms connecting with people who are struggling financially and cannot easily feed their families good food. Examples include people working for food, gleaning finished crops, farms donating to shelters and other organizations, accepting SNAP cards at farmers markets, and an incentive program to encourage people to use SNAP entitlements to buy produce. Posting a photo of a SNAP card at your booth can help people using the cards feel welcome. The author encourages farmers to take flyers to distribute in the waiting rooms of agencies where people enroll for SNAP, WIC and other benefits. A approach used in central Texas is to post photos of available produce on popular Facebook groups for Spanish speakers that otherwise feature cars and jewelry for sale. The article is packed with ideas.

Tumbling Shoals Farm in mid-March
Photo Ellen Polishuk

Ellen Polishuk’s Farmer to farmer Profile this issue features Shiloh Avery and Jason Roehrig of  Tumbling Shoals Farm in NC. Here’s the very short version:

Tumbling Shoals Farm

3 acres certified organic

7 high tunnels ( one heated)

1 Haygrove tunnel

66 % FM, 26% C SA, 8 % wholesale

2018 is year 1 1 for this farm.

Ellen visited in mid-March, on the farm crew’s first work day of the year, when there was snow on the ground. The farmers made a thoughtful review of their first ten years, and a plan for the future. They decided to expand in 2017 to increase net farm income and quality of life. This involves hiring one more full-time worker for the season, for a total of five; building a heated  high tunnel (for early tomatoes); and providing a four-day-weekend paid vacation for each employee during the dog days of August. Not everything went according to plan. Terrible wet spring weather led them to the somewhat desperate decision to also work a winter season too, to meet their income goal. This didn’t meet their quality of life goal, as you can imagine! The original investor for the heated hoophouse fell through, but they were able to finance it themselves. Everyone benefitted enormously from the little August break. For 2018 they are going to focus on their most profitable crops (they dropped strawberries, sweet potatoes, regular potatoes, winter squash and cut flowers.) Ellen commended them for their bravery in taking the difficult decision to drop “loser crops”. I know what that’s like. As Ellen says

” There is history to battle, habits to break, customer wishes to deny, and maybe even some ego to wrestle with.”

The article continues with info on addressing soil fertility outside and in the tunnels, buying selected machinery, and running a Lean packing shed. For more photos from Ellen’s visit, go to tinyurl.com/y7r8vr5a.

Start Your Farm book front cover

For more information go to Ellen Polishuk’s website. (Her new book Start Your Farm will be out soon, and I will review it on my blog.)

The next article is on when to call in a book-keeper and when a CPA, by Morgan Houk. “Why are we asking ourselves to be our own financial advisors too?” We have many other hats, we don’t need this one. Rowan Steele writes “Working Together: Oregon multi-agency farmer development program grows farmers.” This is about providing opportunities for the next generation of farmers, and lowering the average age of Oregon farmers below 60, ensuring that food production continues, and that the land is well cared for. Doug Trott writes about protected culture flower planning, from am exposed hillside in west-central Minnesota. Flower growers everywhere will get encouragement from this careful farm research and practice.

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Hose repair tools: repair piece, sharp knife, Philips screwdriver, “wooden finger,” dish soap and unbreakable insulated mug.
Photo Pam Dawling

Mother Earth News DIY Skills and Projects blog is giving more coverage to my Step-by-Step Garden Hose Repairs post.  I also wrote about hose repairs here.

Anyone who is looking at a broken hose can read this and gather what’s needed to get that hose back into service.  Next hot sunny day (when hoses are more flexible) find half-an-hour to solve your hose problems


The Year-Round Hoophouse front cover.
New Society Publishers.

Year-Round Hoophouse Book Update

 The Twin Oaks Indexing Crew has finished indexing my new book. Very thoroughly, I’m happy to say – what farmer has time to deal with a poor index when they are in a hurry?

All the typesetting is done. Next stop is at the printers. This will take five to six weeks. From the printers it goes to the warehouses, then out to the stores. I should have copies for sale at the beginning of November! I sign all the copies I sell direct through my website and at sustainable agriculture conferences and similar events I attend. Yes, it is possible to buy the book for less money, but you don’t get a signed copy, and you won’t have the warm heart that comes from knowing you helped support a small scale farmer and author. The amount that an author gets for a copy of the book sold depends on the price the buyer paid and the price the supplier paid. And there’s also the library for those with not enough money to buy.

 

Year-Round Hoophouse book update, Nematodes in hoophouse cucumbers, Organic Broadcaster.

Removing old hoophouse plastic. Photo Wren Vile

I just completed another step on the way to getting my new book, The Year-Round Hoophouse, published. I proofread aver 300 pages of text over the course of five very intensive focused days. In the next four days I checked all the photos, including the color section. I replaced a few photos that didn’t come out clearly, fixed a couple of glitches (that’s what proofreading is for!) And I added up to 17 more photos wherever there was enough space at the ends of chapters. The index is being prepared, and another proofreader is also carefully working through the text.

Then the corrected pre-press proof will be prepared by early August, and we’ll be on track for the November 20 publication date, with the books coming off-press in mid-October and heading to the stores. ISBN 978-0-86571-863-0.

The finished paperback book will be 288 pages, 8″ x 10″ (20 x 25 cm) for $29.99 (US or Canadian). It will also be available in digital formats.


Cucumber roots with nematodes (see circles).
Photo Pam Dawling

When we were clearing our early bush cucumbers from the hoophouse a couple of weeks ago, I found four plants at the east end of the bed with nematodes. I’ve written before about our struggles with root knot nematodes in our hoophouse, and indeed, you can read everything I know about nematodes in the Year-Round Hoophouse.

Here is another photo of the lumpy roots, with circles outlining the nematode lumps.

A different cucumber root with nematode lumps (see circles).
Photo Pam Dawling

The July/August Organic Broadcaster is out. The first article is about a poultry system compatible with regenerative agriculture. Regenerative Agriculture is one of the sustainable agriculture movements that are springing up as an alternative to USDA Organic, which now allows CAFOs, hydroponics and other unhealthy, non-sustainable methods. The regenerative poultry system includes trees for shade, ranging paddocks where the poultry are rotated, and night shelter. The aim of the author, Reginaldo Haslett-Marroquin, is a fully regenerative supply chain, starting with what kinds of grains they feed the poultry and how they are grown. Farmers can reach the organizers of Regeneration Midwest by emailing [email protected].

The second article explains the consequences of USDA halting the Organic check-off as part of their program. The editorial introduces Organic 2051, a one-day conference (Feb 21, 2019) prior to the MOSES Conference, “to bring together leaders in the organic and sustainable farming community to chart the path forward for truly sustainable farming by the year 2050 and beyond, demonstrating our capacity to feed the world.”

Another article (by Matthew Kleinhenz) discusses biofertilizers and explores differences between an average yield increase which is sustained and throughout the field, and one that might lead to a similar average yield increase, but with a result that is widely fluctuating between one plant and the next, producing a few start yielders but fewer plants with an actual yield increase.

Bailey Webster writes about industrial hemp, an up and coming crop with mostly non-food uses, although the seeds are finding favor, touted as a “superfood”. Brittany Olsen writes about the MOSES farm mentorship program, Teresa Wiemerslage writes about the Food Safety Modernization Act Produce Safety Regulation and Laura Jessee Livingston writes about a new apprenticeship program training farm managers.

Carlos Valencia and his dog, Paco, live on a farm in rural Kansas. He has faced numerous issues with officials and vandals that have prevented him from achieving his farming goals. Photo submitted

Another article by Bailey Webster explores a shocking case that looks like racism in rural Kansas (although of course it could be almost anywhere). Kansas farmer Carlos Valencia, who is is black and Hispanic, began managing a farm in Norton, Kansas that was owned by Golden Duck LLC in 2007. He was working for equity in the farm, rather than for wages, with the goal of owning it himself one day. He planned to raise poultry, and had submitted documents to the Kansas Department of Health and Environment to get farm operating permits to raise geese on a commercial scale. The paperwork was taking a long time, and if he was to raise geese that year and earn his living, he needed to get goslings on the farm while they were available. Geese do not produce young year-round, only February-June. Fully expecting to get his permits (the previous farmers there had an industrial hog unit), he bought 20,000 goslings. This sounds like a huge number to me, but I understand from the article that this is a modest start. In June, disaster struck in the form of an unusually strong hail storm that killed 800 of Valencia’s young geese. He chose a common practice on poultry farms: incinerating them. The local authorities caught wind of it, and worried that the poultry had died of disease. The USDA and the state biopsied the dead birds to check for disease, and found that there was no disease present. Continue reading “Year-Round Hoophouse book update, Nematodes in hoophouse cucumbers, Organic Broadcaster.”

Spring delayed, Organic Trade Assoc suing government

Hoophouse chard with spots cleared for planting tomatoes. Photo Pam Dawling

We normally (or do I mean “used to”?) transplant our hoophouse tomatoes on March 15 here in central Virginia. But this year spring is late and cold. Our starts have been struggling in our greenhouse, not helped by our heat mat deciding to give up the ghost. Plus a spot of learning curve errors in not noticing this quickly, or that our germination chamber wasn’t as toasty as it needed to be. Yesterday I decided it was time to adapt to reality, and turned our greenhouse heater up from 45F to 50F. Tomatoes, peppers and cucumbers are not going to do well at only 45F. We’re not getting any solar gain lately because it’s been cloudy. In fact, we’re bracing for snow tonight and tomorrow.

We have measured out spots 2ft apart down the middles of the two tomato beds in the hoophouse, cleared the winter crops from those spots (see the photo above), dug holes, added a shovelful of compost to each hole, and now we’re waiting for the plants to reach a sensible size to transplant.

Bare-root Vates kale transplants to go outdoors from our hoophouse.
Photo Pam Dawling

Meanwhile outdoors, we have finished transplanting spinach as bare-root transplants from our hoophouse, and next up are the kale and collards. I wrote about bare-root transplants in January 2017.

In the hoophouse we are encouraged by watching our snap peas grow.We planted these February 1, a month earlier than we plant outdoors. That “month earlier then outdoors” is our general guideline for hoophouse sowings after the winter solstice.

Sugar Ann snap peas in our hoophouse March 7, 5 weeks after sowing. Photo by Pam Dawling

Our lettuce suffered a big setback/death knell in the New Year cold snap, and it’s a challenge to come up with 5-10 gallons of salad mix each day. Happily we have lots of spinach, several patches of baby lettuce mix and several of brassica salad mix (mustards). For cooking greens, our Red Russian and White Russian kales are doing very well.

Red Russian kale in our hoophouse March 7
Photo Pam Dawling

The Organic Trade Association is suing the US Department of Agriculture to defend Organic standards for handling of livestock and poultry. On September 13, 2017, the OTA filed a lawsuit against USDA over their failure to implement the new Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices regulation. These regulations would protect Organic integrity, advance animal welfare, and safeguard the process for developing Organic standards. USDA unlawfully delayed the effective date to implement the final livestock standards, several times over. The USDA violated the Administration Procedure Act, because the delays were issued without public process. They ignored the overwhelming public record in support of these Organic standards.

The Organic Welfare Rule is the result of 14 years of transparent public work within the process established by Congress. It addresses four areas of practice: living conditions, animal healthcare, transport and slaughter.

The Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices (OLPP) final rule was published on Jan. 19, 2017, in the Federal Register, and the government has now attempted to delay the implementation of the rule 6 times – either through the rule-making process or through court filings.

It was delayed to May 19, 2017 (because there was a regulatory freeze on new rules). In May it was further delayed to November 14, 2017 and the USDA opened a 30-day period for comment including options to go forward or to withdraw the Rule. There were 47,000 comments, of which 99% supported the rule as written becoming effective as soon as possible. There were only 28 comments to withdraw the rule. On December 15 USDA announced its plan to withdraw the regulation, giving 30 days for comment. Not that this 30 days included 3 Federal holidays.

USDA received roughly 72,000 comments (in this short comment period during the holiday season) with an overwhelming majority supporting OLPP. USDA also recognizes that of those comments, only approximately 50 supported the withdrawal – another clear disregard of the record by USDA in its attempts to kill the final rule.

Organic producers (the people directly impacted by the rule) overwhelmingly support the rule. Most of the (tiny amount) of opposition is from outside the organic sector. See the Washington Post of January 16, 2018 from 29 Organic organizations demanding a return to honoring the public process previously in place.

On March 12, The Washington Post (search for Ag Department kills animal welfare rule for organic meat) announced that the Trump administration, via USDA, has withdrawn the Organic Livestock and Poultry Practices final rule published in January 2017 by Barack Obama’s government.

The regulation would have ensured that organically grown livestock and poultry had enough space to stand up, turn around, fully stretch, lie down, and had ventilation and access to fresh air.

So frustrating!

Chickens and a guinea hen.
Photo Twin Oaks Community