Visitors see differences in Cuban, U.S. farming

by Douglas Rojas

When most students think about spring break they probably picture a vacation in Mazatlan or the Bahamas. However, for some students and local farmers, traveling to Cuba was not only a break activity, but also a learning experience.
A group of 28 University students and area farmers went to Cuba for a week to take a close look at the sustainable agriculture techniques the country has been implementing for the last seven years.
“It was a great educational experience for both farmers and students,” said Laurie Sovell, a graduate student in fisheries and wildlife. “We learned a lot from them (Cuban farmers and scientists),” she said.
Students and farmers visited working cooperative farms and attended lectures on subjects such as reforestation, “green” medicine that uses herbs for their medicinal qualities, and acupuncture techniques for anesthesia in surgeries. They also visited major Cuban universities –including the University of Havana — involved in the research and implementation of sustainable and organic agriculture techniques.
Sustainable agriculture adjusts farming techniques to take into account local economic, social and environmental factors in an effort to increase yields while preserving the quality of the land. Crops are planned for local consumption, and chemical fertilizer is avoided where possible.
An interesting feature of Cuban university research, said Julie Grossman, a graduate student in soil microbiology, is the use of laboratory stations in the farm fields to produce organic fertilizers and biological control agents against pests.
Extension service agents in these stations, Grossman said, also take farmers’ problems in the field to the universities, where researchers look for practical solutions. Then, if solutions are found, they are applied in the area, she said. There are about 220 of these small stations in the country.
Until about a decade ago, Cuba had a highly mechanized and subsidized agricultural system geared to the export of sugar cane, Sovell said. After the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba’s imports of oil decreased dramatically, and agricultural supplies, such as fertilizers and pesticides, were in high demand. Sugar cane production declined, while other crops were planted to cope with food shortages.
Although sugar cane still dominates the Cuban economy, Cuban officials said the early 1990s saw the worst economic crisis in the island’s history. Farmers were caught between the demand for cash crops and the need for food.
“They needed to become more self-sufficient to produce food for the people,” Sovell said. Low production costs made sustainable and organic agriculture viable solutions for the crisis, she said. For example, to compensate for the lack of fuel, Cuban farmers started to replace tractors with animals, such as oxen.
For Arvib Jovaag, a 60-year-old farmer from Austin, Minn., it was interesting to see how Cuba is finding successful solutions for its current crisis.
“They had to scramble to figure out how to deal with this problem,” he said. “They don’t have the same inputs as we do.”
For Jovaag, using plants as natural insecticides and planting more than one crop in the field to balance the absorption of nutrients from the ground –a practice called intercropping — were among the most interesting findings of the trip.
Jovaag said those techniques are best suited to a more agrarian population, such as Cuba. In the United States, though, a more mechanized style of farming dominates.
In Cuba, sustainable and organic agriculture are official governmental policies, said Kathryn Clements, an environmental sciences senior, whereas in the United States they are limited to state and local initiatives with little support from the government.
“There is not a countrywide commitment from the U.S. government to support sustainable agriculture, as in Cuba,” Clements said. “It’s a whole different economic situation.”
Visiting a country with such “amazing” commitment “was inspiring for those of us who are involved in sustainable and organic agriculture,” Clements said.
Perhaps the most obvious difference between the two countries is the degree of farm mechanization. Because sustainable agriculture requires a great deal of hand labor, it would be difficult to apply some Cuban techniques in the U.S., said Carolyn Lane, an agricultural education senior.
“But I think a lot of their techniques would definitively have potential for application,” Lane said. Use of natural insecticides and intercropping techniques in small-scale operations could be applied here, she said.
The trip also offered students the chance to study alternative farming techniques as well as understand the Cuban society and culture.
For Jovaag, the trip allowed him to see the effects of the current U.S. embargo in Cuba’s trade, which Cuban officials say have also harmed the Cuban economy.
“It’s hard to understand why we are doing this,” Jovaag said. “It doesn’t seem to make a lot of sense.”
Despite the more than 30-year-old embargo, the Cuban people were very friendly to the American visitors, Jovaag said.
“You think they would be mad at us, but they liked us; they like to put their story out. It was a nice experience,” he said.
“I admire the fact how Cuban people have managed the crisis,” said Grossman.