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.”