Wednesday, June 17, 2009

Cuba's Urban Agriculture Movement

By Sinan Koont

Over the last fifteen years, Cuba has developed one of the most successful examples of urban agriculture in the world. Havana, the capital of Cuba, with a population of over two million people, has played a prominent, if not dominant role, in the evolution and revolution of this type of agriculture. The phrase "urban agriculture in Cuba" has a somewhat different meaning, simultaneously more and less restrictive than might appear at a first glance. It is more inclusive, as it allows for large expanses, urban fringes, and suburban lands.

For example, the entire cultivated area of the Province of the City of Havana belongs to urban agriculture. This definition includes land that is much more rural than urban-some of the city's municipalities (or boroughs) in the eastern and southwestern parts of the city have relatively low population densities, around 2,300 to 3,500 people per square mile versus around 50,000 to 100,000 per square mile in the densely populated parts. As a result, more than 35,000 hectares (over 87,000 acres) of land are being used in urban agriculture in Havana!1 The serious development of urban agriculture in Cuba began simultaneously with the disappearance of petrochemical inputs, such as fertilizers and pesticides, from Cuban markets. Consequently, urban production uses only biological fertilizers and biological and cultural pest control techniques. The limited quantities of petrochemicals available are employed for a few non-urban crops such as sugar, potatoes, and tobacco. In Cuba, the distinction between organic and urban is hardly worth making, as almost all urban agriculture follows organic practices.

The necessity for Cuba to turn to urban and organic agriculture in the early 1990s is both well known and understood. The collapse of the Soviet Union and the ending of trade with COMECON on rather favorable terms spelled the end of the Soviet-style, large-scale, industrial agriculture that Cuba had been practicing since at least the 1970s. Almost overnight, diesel fuel, gasoline, trucks, agricultural machinery, spare parts for trucks and machinery, as well as petrochemical-based fertilizers and pesticides, all became very scarce. In view of the severe crisis in food production, a shift to urban agriculture seemed an obvious and necessary solution: urban production minimized transportation costs and smaller-scale production minimized the need for machinery. Agro-ecological production (applying the principles of ecology to agricultural practices), in part, necessitated production sites near the living areas of large concentrations of people, and at the same time avoided the use of toxic petrochemical fertilizers and pesticides, which were no longer available.

Less well known, but perhaps equally important, are the reasons of prudence and national security that had been pushing Cuba in this direction since the 1970s. Cuba had been, and still is, under a partial blockade by the United States. Even more threatening, and ever-present, is the possibility of a total blockade of the island. Early on, scientific institutions started researching the possibility of import substitution in production, including agricultural production, which would make the island less dependent on imported goods.2 At the same time, within the Ministry of Defense (and not the Ministry of Agriculture, which was committed to industrial, high-input agriculture) and institutions such as the National Institute of State Reserves (INRE), programs were started to study potential responses to a complete cut-off of petroleum imports. It was during a visit to the Armed Forces Horticultural Enterprise on December 27, 1987, that Raul Castro, as minister of defense, encouraged the introduction of a technology later widely employed in urban agriculture.

General Moises Sio Wong-head of INRE-recounted this visit to Raul Castro ten years later during another visit: a woman agricultural engineer, referred to by Sio Wong simply as "Ingeniera Anita," had carried out some successful experiments growing vegetables without using petrochemicals.3 Castro had suggested the desirability of generalizing this method of cultivation. Thus, beginning December 1987, four years before the demise of the Soviet Union, the so-called organoponicos, rectangular-walled constructions-roughly thirty meters by one meter-containing raised beds of a mixture of soil and organic material such as compost, started being installed in armed forces facilities.

It was, however, not until the end of 1991, that the first "civilian" organoponico in Havana was put into operation in a two-acre, empty lot across the street from the INRE Headquarters in the Miramar district of Havana. Since then, the organoponico has become one of the mainstays of vegetable cultivation in Cuban urban agriculture.4

Thus, by the time the crisis made the shift of agricultural production to cities unavoidable, at least some parts of the Cuban institutional structure were able to respond with technologies, policies, and practices that had been developed for a lengthy period of time preceding the crisis.

By 1994, an organization was created to oversee the systematic introduction of organoponicos and intensive gardens into urban agriculture. In 1997 this was converted into the Urban Agriculture National Movement. Conditions of access to land underwent considerable change. Before the crisis, land was either privately held and worked by owners or it was state-owned and worked by employees. Now, in addition, land was distributed to individuals (as parcelos [plots], with the individuals being called parceleros) and cooperatives. New cooperative forms-with or without a collectively cultivated, jointly held area-came into being. A Credit and Services Cooperative (CCS) typically brought together plots and willing pre-existing private farms.5

In addition, there are patios (privately owned home gardens producing primarily for family consumption), individual plots, state farms, and areas de autoconsumo (state enterprises producing food for the consumption of their own workers).

Grow your own wheat, make your own bread said the little red hen

Freshly ground wheat flour has a high vitamin content; vitamins that degrade all too quickly when exposed to the air. The whole grain flour that we buy from stores is often quite stale and may have significantly reduced vitamin content when compared to freshly ground.

(from Planting a plot approximately 10 feet by 10 feet will, when all is said and done, yield between 10 and 25 loaves of bread. To begin, find a nice backyard plot and choose the type of wheat you wish to plant. In the United States two varieties are grown, white and red. Red wheat is more common. Red wheat also produces bread with a much more intense flavor. Consider the advantages of growing winter wheat as opposed to spring variety.

Winter wheat can be planted from late-September to mid-October. It is the preferred variety because it tends to be more nutritious than spring wheat, protects the soil in the winter, and has less competition from the weeds in the spring. Try to plant early enough to get a good root system growing before winter dormancy sets in, but not so early that flies and pests become a problem. Spring wheat is planted in early spring and is most commonly found in the northern reaches of the country where the intensely cold winters create problems for winter wheat.

Finding a source for seeds can be a problem. Seed supply houses usually sell in large quantities to farmers and are not geared to individuals wanting to make a small plot in their back yard. The seeds they provide can also be laced with fungicide. Still, this is the best place to begin. You can also find wheat seed at your local natural food stores. The grain in the bins may be planted as well as eaten, just be sure you know whether you are getting winter or spring wheat so that you plant in the proper season.

Try to plant the seed on good rich soil. The ground should be relatively even. This can be done with a rototiller, or more naturally with a shovel and a rake. There are three methods of planting, one is the time honored broadcast method in which 3 ounces or so of seed is "sprinkled" over the garden bed for every 100 square feet. This is about 1 seed for every square inch. Planting density is largely dependent on the richness and moistness of the soil. More wheat per square feet will absorb more nutrients and moisture. Be sure to rake the patch to cover the seed and protect it from hungry birds. Another method, called drilling, creates a hole about every six inches and plants several seeds per hole. The plants come up in a bunch but spread out over the bare area. This method allows for weeding when the plants are young, but is more labor intensive. Similarly, tightpacked rows (about 6 inches apart) can be made in the soil and the wheat seed spread up and down the rows in the manner of beets or carrots.

Wheat harvest usually occurs in June when the wheat begins to turn a golden color but still has a few streaks of green. Using a scythe or some other sharp blade, mow down the stalks then tie them into bundles, standing them upright in the garden patch. Then allow the grain to fully ripen into a golden color.

Twine could be used to tie the bundles, but the traditional method is to take about an inch thick bunch of stems. Tie the lower end, binding the stalks together. Then wrap them around the bundle tying the head and foot of the stalks at about the middle of the bundle, creating a shock.

Keep the heads dry, then thresh and winnow at your leisure. The simplest form of threshing involves grasping a quantity of ripe wheat in one hand and beating it around the inside of a barrel. The grain falls off the stalks and the stalks are discarded or composted.

Winnowing is the process of separating the wheat from the chaff and small bits of straw. Since time immemorial this has been done by pouring the wheat from one container to another in a stiff breeze. The breeze blows away the chaff and the resulting wheat is as pure a product as you may easily produce. Absent a stiff breeze, a fan may be used.

Your wheat is now ready for storage. Wheat may be stored in barrels, bags or what-have-you. The basic requirements are that the space be cool, dry and pest-free (think rodent and bug).

Throw some in a blender or food processor and grind to flour consistency.

Start with a half cup of whole grain. Turn the blender up to its highest speed. If the blender seems to bog down, stop and reduce the amount of grain. Add a larger amount for the next batch if the blender handled the original half cup sufficiently. Continue to grind the grains until they reach the consistency desired. Grind the grain in batches until the desired amount is achieved.

Pick your favorite pasta, pancake, bread, cookie or muffin recipe and start baking!

Organic Bytes

Some Organic News,

-A new Organic Trade report reveals sales of organic products in 2008 grew 17.1% over the previous year. Organic food sales grew more than three times the rate of nonorganic food sales.

-According to the Journal of Applied Nutrition, organically grown fruits and vegetables have significantly higher nutritional content than conventional produce: "Organically grown apples, wheat, sweet corn, potatoes and pears were examined over a 2 year period and were 63% higher in calcium, 73% higher in iron, 118% higher in magnesium, 178% higher in molybdenum, 91% higher in phosphorus, 125% higher in potassium and 60% higher in zinc than conventionally grown produce." In addition, organic meats were not only found to be leaner, but also have about five times the omega-3s.

-In a conventional diet, we are exposed to over 70 pesticide-related pollutants on a daily basis. A recent 2009 report found that switching to an organic diet reduces pesticide exposure by over 95%.

-The Environmental Working Group published a list of the 12 most pesticide ridden foods based on 87,000 tests. Nectarines, peaches, apples, strawberries and imported grapes topped the list. The most pesticide-free non-organic produce includes onions, avocados, and sweet corn.

By Ethan Huff
NaturalNews, June 5, 2009