Day 5 – Saturday January 11 (Viñales) late afternoon
After lunch at Finca Paraiso restaurant and a tour of their beautiful farm, we visited
Finca L’Armonia (Ecological Permaculture Farm)
Our 27-year-old host farmer Yoani arrived on horseback. He is farming 1 hectare (2.2 acres) of his family of origin’s 13 hectares. It is a lovely farm. The farmer had twice been to France for permaculture training. His mother, sister, and grandfather farm the other 12 hectares as a coop that sells to the government (we saw part of this in a fenced area of shaded annual crops). He does permaculture on his portion.
He grows two varieties of coffee (trees his grandfather planted) and had coffee for sale in plastic water bottles. Because tourists are urged to drink only bottled water, empty water bottles are a convenient container for any kinds of seeds, as we saw at the bean seed conservation center, Finca Hoyo Bonito (see March 17 2020 post). He also grows passionfruit, avocado, pineapples, mangoes, and other fruit trees including Cuban pears.
He maintains worm bins and a composting toilet (top quality!) – the first composting toilet we saw on our tour. I am surprised there are not more composting toilets in the rural areas. Some tourist spots have horrible restrooms!
My room-mate Julia and I had dinner at our casa, cooked by our hosts. We had soup, salad, rice, red snapper fish, ice cream with honey. All delicious.
In the evening I did some shopping at a souvenir street market in Viñales.
Here is a video about this farm, from Franny’s Farmacy. Made by two of my fellow travelers on the OGS Tour.
To read more about the Organic Growers School organized trips and Cuban agriculture, see this article written by our fantastic tour guide Yoseti Herrera Guitián, who started working as a tour guide in 2013 with Amistur Cuba, a specialized tourism travel agency that is part of ICAP (Cuban Institute of Friendship with the Peoples). She has worked with diverse groups focused on topics such as health, education, culture and mostly agriculture. Open as a new page here: https://organicgrowersschool.org/cuba-through-the-seasons
Cuban AgroEcology Tour: La Palma farm, Pinar del Rio Province
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.
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:
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
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.
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”)
Here is a short video about Finca Hoyo Bonito. It’s in Spanish, naturally!
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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.”