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
I’ve long had some misgivings about the almost religious fervor of some permaculturists, while at the same time appreciating their seriousness about sustainable land use. (In fact I have written for Permaculture North America, and I have friends who are Permaculturists.) My first impressions of Permaculture were that it was a combination of common sense farming practices gussied up with new labels, other ideas that seemed to me very impractical, and ideas that might work fine in the tropics but not so well in the rest of the world. But it seemed rude to say so publicly. Like picking a fight with allies when there are so many more important campaigns. And more recently I have met some gardeners and even farmers who apply the Permaculture ideas that work in their context, without becoming evangelical about it. I would love to read a practical book written by someone farming commercially, explaining how they apply some of the Permaculture ideas, and make a living.
It’s titled What Permaculture got Wrong – Dispelling Five Common Myths
Curtis describes how many people new to farming are a bit starry-eyed, and are (as he was) inspired by Permaculture ideas. In his experience, many of the promises of Permaculture don’t pan out, especially if you try to make them work on a commercial scale as opposed to a hobby, when it doesn’t matter how long a method takes, or how much money it costs.
He has identified five slogans of Permaculture he believes should disappear. He wants to save farmers from burning out while holding these unrealistic tenets. At the same time, he is not disrespecting any individual Permaculture teachers or students, authors or farmers. He just wants everyone to have realistic expectations and for commercial growers to use viable methods.
Permaculture aims to keep the topsoil in place, along with all its biodiversity, and grow food, following patterns in nature. This is a great approach. The problems come with some of the specific prescriptions. Curtis Stone labels five problematic cultural memes The Self-Sustaining Farm; The Lazy Gardener; Mulch Everything; Swale Everything; and No Pests!
The Self-Sustaining Farm
The Forest Garden can work for someone with enough land, providing food for just a few people. There are fruits and nuts, some perennial vegetables, and annual vegetables between the trees. But in order for a food system to feed lots of people, we invented agriculture (which is not natural) to dependably produce quantities of food in an efficient (affordable) way. Most vegetables are annuals, not perennials, and that where the work is, and the bulk of our food. A lot of food can be produced efficiently from a relatively small area of land using annual crops. A Forest Garden is not going to feed the world, and it’s unfair to new farmers to tell them it will. It’s also untrue to suggest that forest, orchard and vineyard crops require almost no work once they are established. Growing food for lots of people is hard work, even when you apply smart methods.
The Lazy Gardener
This idea comes from Bill Mollison, suggesting you can plant crops and ignore them, and get good harvests. Planting potatoes by covering them with mulch rather than soil is one suggestion. Most of these “Lazy Gardener” ideas are not workable on a commercial scale. You can ignore weeds and use “lazy” methods if you are not earning your living from farming, or expecting to feed many people. It’s a lifestyle choice, not a career.
Straw mulch is very popular with some Permaculturists. It is used in thick layers to smother weeds. It also adds organic matter to the soil. Straw is the stems of small grains. It’s not bio-regional where I live, or where most of us live. If you don’t see fields of wheat, barley, oats, rye in your area, straw would have to be shipped in. It won’t be cheap. It’ll be more expensive if it’s organic. Curtis Stone points out that it is not really sustainable on a commercial scale to cover all the soil with straw. It also doesn’t work well for fast turn-over crops, where you want to plant a follow-on crop (to get most use of your land). Plus, it keeps the soil cool, which is not what you need for warm-season crops. While it can work for home gardeners to push aside mulch to plant two squash plants, it’s not practical for a 200 foot row of squash. (I always enjoyed Ruth Stout’s little books, but I wondered how she could afford all the straw.)
Swales are shallow ditches running along the contours, to catch and hold water – a lovely idea to conserve water resources. Constructing these on a farm scale is time-consuming. Navigating swales while growing rows or beds of annual crops is not very practical. Not all soils or all crops benefit from water retention. Curtis Stone claims he has heard of permaculture consultants putting in swales which led to too much water retention and then landslides! Nowadays Key-line plowing has made water-retention far more practical. But we shouldn’t all install water retention everywhere. The need will depend on the soil, the climate and the crop.
This slogan I have also taken issue with, myself. It’s the mistaken belief that if you garden or farm well, you won’t have any pests. It’s a “Blame the Victim” thing – if you have pests, you must be doing something wrong. I’m all for planting flowers to attract beneficial insects, and encouraging bees, good bugs and birds. But pests and diseases do still happen to good people! It’s important to work to prevent and avoid pests and diseases – but still, keep on scouting! You can’t safely assume you won’t get pests.
Curtis says that for him the oddest irony is the people in Permaculture who critique other farmers as if one problem is the root cause of all that goes wrong, while themselves believing that a particular permaculture idea applies always and everywhere, rather than being dependent on the wider context. This he calls “a monoculture of thinking”. Truly there is no one sustainable solution for all farming situations. It’s easier to have simple beliefs, but it doesn’t work. Every permaculture method is not going to work on every farm. We need to stay adaptable and flexible in our thinking, and respect and look for diversity in our approach.
The June/July issue of Growing for Market magazine is out. The lead article, by Carolina Lees, is for farmers who are venturing into hiring employees. How to benefit from the help, absorb their enthusiasm, and also reduce confusion of crops, tools, harvest specs? How to balance teaching and doing? How to balance the desire for competence and success with compassion for learners? How to change from an idiosyncratic, spur of the moment decision-making to something that’s easier for others to predict and understand? As Carolina Lees says:
“You can get away with a lot less training if you can make the task easier to learn in the first place.”
Her suggestions include reducing the number of different varieties, labelling all beds clearly, having clear standards and measurements, having only one kind of watering wand and timer, only a few sizes and types of harvest container, having clear places where information is written and stored, using checklists, so workers can be more independent.
Jesse Frost writes about making effective use of social media to increase farm sales. You Tube and email might do better than Facebook. Paying to advertise on Facebook can be more effective than merely posting something. And remember that people want a personal connection, not a hard sell.
Jenny Quiner writes about her urban farmstand’s struggle with changing county regulations. This will be useful to anyone in a similar situation.
Anne and Eric Nordell, well-known long-established horse-powered vegetable farmers from Pennsylvania, have been re-thinking plant spacings, after surveying seven other teamsters’ cropping methods. They compare the plant densities used by horse farmers with tow common tractor-farming spacings and two intensive bed densities. Food for thought.
Ellen Polishuk has interviewed Joanna Letz of Bluma Flower Farm for this issue.
If you have been wondering whether a hoophouse (high tunnel) would be worthwhile, this list of twenty reasons to have one can help you decide. The benefits include more and better crops, extended seasons, food self-reliance and a very pleasant work environment.
Don’t think of this as ending with bad news, think of it as saving your health. There is a new tick. The Longhorn Tick has now been found in West Virginia and Virginia, as well as New Jersey.
The longhorn tick is small and difficult to detect. It is known to carry several diseases that can affect humans, as well as livestock, including some diseases that are not prevalent in the United States, but have affected people in Asia.
This species was first identified by the Animal and Plant Inspection Services of the U.S. Department of Agriculture in New Jersey in November 2017. The West Virginia State Department of Agriculture has confirmed the presence of the tick in West Virginia. The longhorn ticks were identified by samples collected from two separate farms in Hardy County WV, both of which are near the Virginia border.
The Virginia Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services confirmed the presence of the tick in Warren County in northern Virginia(on horses), and in Albemarle County on a calf. A list of common ticks found in Virginia can be found here.
This book, by Shawn and Stephanie Jadrnicek, was hidden in my “to read” pile for too long! The title doesn’t make it clear enough that this is an authoritative text on all kinds of water management on the farm: integrating ponds, swales, ditches, water catchment, heat storage in water, irrigation, water for light reflection in winter, fish and shrimp-farming. Chickens and black soldier flies, compost-making and vegetable production in hoophouses and outdoors are all part of the bigger picture.
This book speaks from Shawn Jadrnicek’s experience at the Clemson University Student Organic Farm in South Carolina, and at his own homestead. The author tells us honestly when things he tried didn’t work out, and why. It is a permaculture book written for non-believers as well as the converted. It does not mystify with strange jargon. It does not make unsubstantiated claims about how things ought to be. Full disclosure: I suffer from having read too much permaculture writing that was obscure, convoluted, not backed with direct experience and written for people with a lot of time and only a small piece of land. This book is a breath of fresh air! The ideas have been tested on a farm scale, with a close eye on efficiency. It’s written for market farmers, homesteaders and serious gardeners, showing how to make best use of natural resources to help feed the world. Each technique has to have at least seven functions to qualify for inclusion in the author’s farming practices and the book.
You may not want to follow all of the author’s methods. I, for one, am not going to grow hydroponically. (I doubt that fully nutritious food can be grown without soil, with just the nutrients we know to feed in.) You may not want a hoophouse that is almost all pond. But you may be very happy to find a book that describes how to build a hoophouse on sloping land; very happy to learn how to grade your land to move rainwater away from where you don’t want it to sit, to where you do want it to improve growth of your pastures. You may be very happy to learn how to use a pond to grow minnows (tadpoles in the non-minnow season) to feed chickens. You may like the idea of filling your hoophouse with sweet potatoes or cowpeas in summer to act as a “smother crop,” dealing with weeds while keeping the soil alive. Perhaps you’d like to try freshwater prawn (large shrimp) farming? The regulations are easier than for fish-farming. Giant river prawns can weigh as much as a pound, they are easy to process and cook, and they sell at a good price.
Water management fills over half of the book, complemented by 30 pages on chickens, 33 on compost, 13 on fly farming, 28 on field layout and drainage, and 56 pages of case studies. Most of the vegetable production mentioned takes place in hoophouses (high tunnels). The book includes various ideas for heating the indoor crops, using hydronics (indirect heating with water in pipes warmed in outdoor ponds or compost piles), indoor ponds with solar pool covers, and compost piles leaning on the sidewall of the hoophouse. The information on rainwater harvesting includes checking your roofing material for toxicity (there is a special coating you can put on if necessary), how to avoid leaves clogging gutters (cleverly designed downspout filters), regulations about harvested rainwater, how to make gravity flow toilets and gravity drip irrigation systems that really work, and how to find the data and do the calculations. The level of detail in this book inspires confidence!
The chicken-farming system in this book uses a permanent coop and alley (mulched corridor) along with temporary pens made with electric netting. This makes better use of resources than free-ranging, unless you have only mature trees and grass. The birds get 30% of their dietary needs from the landscape, if rotated every 6-12 days onto perennial clover and grass pasture that has regrown to 4-8″ in height. This system ensures the chickens can always reach shade, and you can reseed bare spots in the resting pens with rye, wheat, millet, sunflowers and buckwheat, and reduce their feed costs by 30%. I liked the careful thinking and observation behind this scheme.
And then we come to the black soldier flies. The mesh flooring of the chicken pen lets the manure fall through into a fly digester below. The fly larvae digest the manure and grow, later becoming chicken food themselves. I wasn’t initially attracted to the idea of deliberately breeding flies, but the system has a lot going for it. Black soldier flies (Hermetia illucens) are not a pest. In fact they out-compete houseflies and thus reduce their numbers 95%! The adult soldier flies live only 5-15 days – they have no functioning mouthparts, and they don’t vector diseases. They are native in zone 7 and warmer, especially in the Southeast, so consult your Extension Service to find out if you’ll need to mail order them or just set out a nice digester once it’s warm enough. This sounds better than worm-bin farming! The flies tolerate a wider range of conditions and consume waste faster than earthworms. The large segmented larvae will “self-harvest” into buckets, if you have a well-designed digester. Two commercial models are available, the larger ProtaPod (4 ft diameter) and the smaller BioPod. They have internal ramps that the pre-pupae will climb, and a curled rim that prevents escape. The creatures launch themselves down a tube into a lidded bucket. All the details are in the book! Add fresh waste daily, and empty the bucket at least weekly (to prevent adult flies hatching out and setting up residence where you don’t want them).
The section on compost-making includes how to extract heat from your compost pile to warm your hoophouse, and how not to extract so much heat that the compost stops working. My beef with some other books about methods of heating greenhouses is that they fail to address the unintended side-effects, such as having very humid air go into your living space, or having little space left to grow plants because the greenhouse is full of heat-storing devices. Make good compost, and warm your hoophouse a bit.
The section on field application of these ideas is not about growing vegetables, but about field layout and drainage. It includes useful calculations on using drip irrigation. It also discusses keyline plowing, which had previously been just a bit of permaculture theory to me. Shawn says, “keyline pattern cultivating intrigued me for years, but I first had to implement the technique before becoming a convert.” There is no need to buy the special equipment some advocates suggest, if you have a box scraper with ripping tines. Keyline plowing (ripping 4″ deep in lines through pasture or grassways to direct water from a valley to a bit of a ridge) helps build soil and increase grass growth. Reading Shawn’s results, I now understand why others said it was a good idea.
I recommend this book to any small-scale farmers who are interested in learning efficient techniques to increase productivity while reducing use of resources.
UPDATES: After the late registration deadline (Oct. 17), you’ll have to wait to register on-site at the Conference.The Local Foods Feast on Friday, Oct. 26 and the Saturday, Oct. 27 Luncheon are now sold out, which means that the Everything Conference Package is no longer available. You can still register today and tomorrow for the Conference Weekend Pass, which gets you in to all the conference action happening from Friday, Oct. 26 at 4:00pm – Sunday, Oct. 28 at 12:00 pm. For your meals during the Conference, there are plenty of outstanding farm-to-fork restaurants right outside the Conference hotel in Downtown Greenville.
This year’s conference features:
Over 50 cutting-edge, skill-building workshops (one of them’s mine!) on growing organically, pastured livestock, soils, permaculture, food, policy and more! Plus, full tracks devoted to beginning farmers, helping your farm business thrive, and a very cool ‘You Make It – Outdoors and Hands-on’ track!
Outstanding pre-conference intensives from the experts in organic certification, organic production, orchard health, food safety, mushrooms, bees, permaculture and more!
Not-to-be-missed pre-conference bus tours to some of the most beautiful and successful sustainable farms and gardens in the Upstate!
The legendary Local Foods Feast on Friday, Oct. 26 at 6:30 PM! Be inspired by keynote, Debra Eschmeyer, co-founder of Food Corps. This magical meal made with only the best in-season, sustainably grown ingredients supplied by local farms is sold out. I hope you already registered and got your ticket!
PLUS – Networking, Seed Exchange and Exhibit Hall, CFSA’s Annual Sustainable Ag. Awards and Amazing Local Food!
My workshop will cover garlic planting, harvest, curing, storing and the selection of planting stock. As well as hardneck and softneck bulb garlic, we will cover “byproduct crops” such as garlic scallions and scapes, which are ready early in the year when new crops are at a premium. You’ll get the chance for an advance discussion of one of the chapters in my book, and to ask questions and share your experience with this tasty crop.
My book, Sustainable Market Farming, and its chapter on garlic, won’t be published in time for the conference, but I will have postcards and pre-publication fliers which offer a discount for pre-orders.