A Rush of Americans, Seeking Gold in Cuban Soil
A Rush of Americans, Seeking Gold in Cuban Soil
By KIM SEVERSONJUNE 20, 2016
HAVANA — Being an agricultural official in Cuba these days is like
living in a resort town all your friends want to visit. You rarely get a
moment to yourself.
For months, Havana’s government offices and its prettiest urban farms
have been filled with American bureaucrats, seed sellers, food company
executives and farmers who spend their evenings eating meals made with
ingredients often imported or smuggled into restaurants that most Cubans
They seek the prizes that are likely to come if the United States ends
its trade restrictions against Cuba: a new supply of sugar, coffee and
tropical produce, and a new market for American exports that could reap
more than $1.2 billion a year in sales, according to the United States
Chamber of Commerce.
But for some, the quest is less about the money than about what they say
is the soul of Cuban agriculture and how people eat.
“The Cubans are not enthusiastic about a Burger King on every corner or
Monsanto being here,” said Representative Chellie Pingree, a Democrat
from Maine and an organic farmer.
In May, Ms. Pingree led a coalition of organic industry leaders, chefs
and investors on a five-day trip here. Their mission, in part, was to
encourage Cuban officials to resist the enticements of larger, more
conventional American food and farming interests and persuade Cubans to
protect and extend the small-scale organic practices that are already a
part of their daily life.
Cuba, it turns out, is a rare oasis of organic and sustainable
agriculture. For reasons of politics, geography and philosophy, the
nation was forced to abandon much of its large-scale, chemical-based
farming and replace it with a network of smaller farms and more natural
Shortly after the revolution in 1959, Cuba began sending sugar, tobacco
and research to the Soviet Union in exchange for a steady supply of
goods that included food, agricultural equipment and farm chemicals. But
30 years later, when the Soviet bloc crumbled, the shipments ended.
Without gasoline and spare parts, tractors sat idle in fields. Crops
rotted and cattle died. Studies show that the average Cuban lost more
than 12 pounds during what President Fidel Castro called the “special
period in time of peace.”
With many large government-owned farms failing, Mr. Castro told the
nation to learn to grow food without chemicals. Oxen replaced tractors.
Smaller, cooperative farms and new markets emerged.
To be sure, Cuba still imports 60 percent to 80 percent of its food, the
United States Department of Agriculture estimates, and little or none of
it organic. Agricultural chemicals are imported from other countries
without trade embargoes. The Cuban government owns about 80 percent of
the land the nation could use to grow food, but more than half remains
fallow. It is unclear how much of the produce Cuba grows would qualify
as organic under United States standards.
Still, a cohesive organic movement is growing. By its own estimates,
Cuba has almost 400,000 urban farms, among them about 10,000 small
organic ones. The government continues to turn land over to independent
farmers to lease, although it requires most to grow food for the state.
For the group of organic true believers who traveled here in May, the
dream is to help Cuba stay loyal to a sustainable style of agriculture
that rejects chemicals and genetic modification. They point to an
incentive: an American market hungry — and willing to pay a premium —
for organic produce.
Although only 5 percent of all food sold in America is organic, those
sales last year grew three times as fast as those of the overall food
market, according to the Organic Trade Association. Cuba offers a new
source to feed the demand for organic sugar, honey, fruit and other raw
Yet Cuba also offers 11 million potential new customers for conventional
agriculture. Just days after Ms. Pingree’s group left, the U.S.
Agriculture Coalition for Cuba, which had already been working in the
Founded in 2015 to promote normalizing American relations with Cuba, the
group has more than 100 members, including corporations like Butterball
and Cargill, commodity associations like corn refiners and soy growers,
and several state farm bureaus.
The delegation returned home holding an agreement with Cuba’s Grupo
Empresarial Agrícola to re-establish Cuba as a market for American
agricultural products. In a follow-up stroke, Gov. Jay Nixon of Missouri
announced on May 30 that Cuba had accepted a 20-ton donation of
long-grain rice grown in his state. The last official shipment of United
States rice to Cuba was in 2008.
Although many in the organic industry see the coalition as a threat to
their cause, its leaders say they share the same goal: to help Cuba feed
itself and improve its agricultural practices.
“There’s not tension, because at the end of the day, this is about how
the Cuban farmer is going to raise their productivity and make their own
choices,” said Devry Boughner Vorwerk, a former Cargill executive who is
now the group’s director. “The key point here is that there is room
enough for everyone.”
Doug Schroeder, a soybean farmer from Illinois, came along on the
coalition’s trip. His state ships about $20 million worth of corn and
soy to Cuba every year under the complex set of rules governing trade
between the two countries. If the United States ends its financial
embargo with Cuba, that figure could jump to $220 million.
“You multiply that for the entire country and all agriculture sales, and
it’s a big deal,” he said.
He anticipates a big market for organics, too, but one in which Cubans
provide food for America. The organic industry, he said, “may be going
into the back door of a gold mine here. It would be interesting if they
could ship organics to the U.S. to satisfy our demand, and we could ship
them the goods we do well.”
The secretary of agriculture, Tom Vilsack, seems to be walking the
middle of that line. The agreement he signed with his Cuban counterpart,
Gustavo Rodríguez Rollero, during President Obama’s historic visit in
March included a nod to sharing research on both styles of agriculture.
And when Mr. Vilsack took Mr. Rollero on a tour of Iowa this month, they
visited both an organic farm and DuPont Pioneer, the nation’s largest
producer of hybrid and genetically modified seeds.
“We have a tremendous opportunity in Cuba to expand exports of soybeans,
rice and poultry at some point,” Mr. Vilsack said during that visit.
“They in turn have a tremendous opportunity to import into the U.S.
organic production. Trade must be a two-way street.”
Those who support organic farming say there is something larger at issue
than just trade. Adopting chemical-based farming methods used by large
agricultural companies that have been visiting Cuba may seem a lucrative
proposition, they say, but it would threaten the organic potential of
thousands of acres of fallow farmland in Cuba.
“That is a system of the past,” Gary Hirshberg, the chairman of
Stonyfield Farm yogurt company and a leader in the effort to label food
with genetically modified ingredients, told Cuban officials during the
May trip. “We are the industry of the future.”
Still, that future, organic or not, is most likely a long way off.
Cubans interviewed during the trip organized by Ms. Pingree said their
country was not prepared to handle a flood of new trade. Cuba’s
agricultural system remains so antiquated that even seeds and
wheelbarrows are in short supply. The rules for doing business, even for
farmers and people trying to start wholesale markets, seem to shift weekly.
“Everybody is adequately sober about the realities of this,” said Laura
Batcha, the executive director of the Organic Trade Association.
Mr. Schroeder, the soybean farmer, had the same impression. “I got the
feeling they don’t want a Starbucks on every corner,” he said. “They
don’t want to be Hawaii. They want to maintain their heritage, but at
the same time, they realize they have a lot of need.”
There are other complications. Farmers in Florida and other states who
grow food suited to tropical climates are already pushing back against a
potential competitor. American shoppers with anti-Castro views are
probably not going to embrace Cuban products, even something as benign
as fresh-cut flowers, which Juan Núñez, the regional president for Whole
Foods who traveled to Cuba with the organic group, thought might be a
likely starting point for import.
The agriculture department has yet to even secure office space in the
new United States embassy here. And despite Mr. Obama’s push, efforts to
lift trade sanctions are moving slowly in Congress and are bogged down
in the run-up to the election.
On Monday, Nespresso announced that it would be the first company to
sell Cuban coffee in America since the revolution. Through a deal
brokered with help from TechnoServe, a nonprofit development
organization, pods of Cuban-grown Arabica coffee Nespresso is calling
Cafecito de Cuba will go on sale for a limited time in the fall.
People who trade in organics say they, too, are likely to start small.
Coffee is a possibility, as is charcoal made from marabú, a thorny,
invasive tree that has stymied farmers trying to clear land. The
high-quality charcoal has caught on in Europe.
And then there is sugar, especially organic sugar, which is in high
demand by American processors. What if raw, organic Cuban sugar became
an indispensable ingredient for craft cocktails, Ms. Pingree asked
during a stroll through a Havana neighborhood. That could turn public
opinion enough to sway Congress.
“It sounds frivolous, but some doors open in moments,” she said. “At
this point, we are looking for little paths to move this forward. It’s
hard to know which ones they will be.”
Ultimately, the future of Cuban agriculture will be decided in Cuba.
Despite their reliance on imported, often poor quality food supplemented
with state-issued rations, Cubans have long associated food and farming
with health, and have a deep love of cooking — especially with anything
grown in Cuba, said Imogene Tondre, an American-born culinary researcher
Cuban chefs are already seeking out better quality food and exchanging
ideas with American peers. One of them is Tom Colicchio, the New York
chef and television personality who has become active in American food
politics and traveled with Ms. Pingree to Cuba.
In meetings during the May trip, he urged Cuban officials to build on
the nation’s extensive organic research and the cultural desire for
local food, and to resist the monetary lures of big agriculture. “We ask
that you have the political will to reject that and continue to do what
you are doing and know that there is a market for it,” Mr. Colicchio
said in an impassioned plea.
Moraima Céspedes Morales, director of international affairs in Cuba’s
Ministry of Agriculture, told him to stay calm. “We are trying to
produce the healthiest food possible,” she said. “All the pressures,
they don’t matter.”
What matters to Cubans, she told the group, is neither American market
pressure nor the battle over which style of farming is better.
“The most important program for us,” she said, “is still one of
Correction: June 20, 2016
An earlier version of this article misstated the position held by
Moraima Céspedes Morales. She is director of international affairs for
Cuba’s Ministry of Agriculture, not for Cuba.
Source: A Rush of Americans, Seeking Gold in Cuban Soil – The New York