Cuban agriculture
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Cuba revives its private farms

Cuba revives its private farms
Lianne Milton / For The Times

July 14, 2008
ALTAHABANA, CUBA — Speckled chickens in Geraldo Pinera's garden will be
on his family's dinner table soon, stewed with herbs and tomatoes and
garnished with creamy slices of the avocados now ripening on a pair of
spindly trees.

Pinera, a member of a 25-family farming cooperative in this village
outside Havana, tends a private half-acre plot tucked between the
state-owned mango orchards where he works a day job. He raises guava,
passion fruit, sweet potatoes and poultry to augment a $20 monthly
income and the government ration of starches.

Like other Cuban families, the Pineras are eating more fruits and
vegetables as a result of a national campaign to boost output and
curb costly imports. Their efforts represent a small but significant
step toward the government's ultimate goal to vastly reduce its
dependence on more efficient foreign producers, especially for favorite
foods such as rice, meat and dairy.

President Raul Castro spurred the planting of idle lands around cities
with a series of reforms in recent months aimed at improving
self-sufficiency. The moves included making land available free to those
willing to till it and easing a strangling national bureaucracy that
once controlled a farmer's every step, from seed procurement to sales price.

Castro has unleashed an ambitious effort to lift output of high-ticket
items, raising prices paid to meat and milk producers and freeing
growers from obligations to sell their food to the state.

He has made seeds, tools and fertilizers available through a new network
of country stores and challenged a population that is 80% urban to grow
what it eats.

But a swift expansion in meat and dairy production remains a daunting
task, as few farming co-ops have money to pay for even when the
prices for their products are increasingly enticing. Predictions of
quick results appear to echo the excess ambition of the failed drive in
1970 to harvest 10 million tons of and the unfulfilled plans of
past decades to provide each family with its own milk cow.

The government expects to cut food imports by at least 5% next year,
Deputy Minister Juan Perez Lama told journalists in Havana
in early June. He also predicted that rice imports could be halved
within five years — a herculean task considering that Cuba last year
imported $170 million worth from Vietnam, and the United States.

Cuban state enterprises grew about 10% of the 700,000 tons of rice
consumed last year. Private farmers produced about twice that. Although
70% has to be imported, scholars point to the rise in the small-farm
output begun a decade ago.

"It's an impressive goal [to halve rice imports] but I do think Cuba is
in a unique position to achieve it," said Catherine Murphy, a San
Francisco Bay Area sociologist working on development projects in Latin

Murphy lived in Havana during the late 1990s, when the country suffered
severe food shortages after the loss of Soviet aid. That experience of
having to swiftly replace imports is serving Cubans well now that food
prices are rising around the world, she said.

The state food trade agency, Alimport, reported that rice costs had
tripled this year.

In announcing cuts in public investments because of high fuel and food
prices, Vice President Carlos Lage predicted that imported food would
cost the government at least 50% more this year than last, when it spent
$1.7 billion.

Cuba spent almost 30% more on food imports from the United States last
year than in 2006, but that increase was due to rising costs, not
quantity, said John Kavulich, senior policy advisor of the U.S.-Cuba
Trade and Economic Council in New York.

The United States has imposed a trade on Cuba for decades. Food
and medicine sales have been allowed in recent years, but prohibitive
shipping and payment regulations still prevent Cubans from taking full
advantage of their nearest market.

Dairy output has been slumping since the early 1990s, "fundamentally due
to very low by the dairy cooperatives, for either keeping
their herds or pastures in good shape," said Frederick Royce, a
University of Florida researcher who did graduate work in Cuban
agriculture in the mid-1990s.

Until recently, he added, the set price the government paid farmers for
milk was well below its cost of production.

In May, farmers who gathered in Havana for a meeting on organic and
sustainable agriculture spoke of the need for ingenuity and doing more
with less. Such skills were needed in the years after the Soviet trade
bloc collapse, referred to as the Special Period in Peacetime, which
generated nationwide deprivation.

The outlook for small-scale organic farming has patriotic agronomists
like Victor Cruz, a retired army colonel working 50 acres in a rural
enclave just south of Havana, predicting victory over the economic
blockade imposed by the United States.

"We will succeed in growing our own food because we have the spirit of
the revolution driving us," he said. "We were hungry during the Special
Period, but we learned a lesson about dependence."

Raul Castro, then defense minister under older brother Fidel's
leadership, spearheaded that recovery effort in the mid-1990s, deploying
troops to the fields to plant, tend and harvest. Daily calorie intake
dropped by a quarter during that time and the average Cuban lost more
than 20 pounds before domestic production picked up.

Cuban agriculture had been backsliding again since 2004, when Fidel
Castro halved sugar cane growing and milling amid a global slump in
sugar prices. He also restored limits on the sale of privately grown
produce in an effort to prevent what he considered farmers' exploitation
of urban compatriots.

The government also failed to fulfill promises of better for
many of the large farming cooperatives in remote rural areas, which have
traditionally operated with much less efficiency than the urban and
suburban patches that have ready access to buyers.

Along the gravel road leading to the mango co-op, women such as Catalina
Alfonso display their produce in battered wheelbarrows for passing
motorists and pedestrians.

"I make hardly anything because most of what we grow we need for
ourselves," Alfonso said. "But at least we are eating better nowadays."

Alfonso's neighbor, Carmen Martino, like many Cubans, disputed whether
more fruits and vegetables represented an improvement.

"We Cubans eat rice, and meat. We have since colonial times,"
Martino said with a defiant bob of her head that jangled her gold
earrings, hoops encircling the word "love." "I know fruits and
vegetables are healthier, but no one will get us to change our ways."

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