Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Organic Cooperative Proves that Agriculture Can Prosper in Cuba

Organic Cooperative Proves that Agriculture Can Prosper in Cuba
By Ivet González

Continuous upgrading and a "vocation" for farming are two keys to the
success of a cooperative that could serve as a model for boosting
agriculture in Cuba.

HAVANA, May 21 2013 (IPS) - "The people are the only thing that
matters," says agronomist Miguel Ángel Salcines, who then goes on to
list a series of other "secondary" factors that have turned Vivero
Alamar, an urban farm on the outskirts of the Cuban capital, into a rare
success story in the country's depressed agricultural sector.

"We offer flexible hours, relatively high wages, and professional
upgrading, among other benefits that make the cooperative an attractive
option. This is how we attract high quality human resources, who are
crucial today in order to produce more organic food," said Salcines, the
president of Vivero Alamar, where production has been chemical-free
since 2000.

The cooperative's recipe for success also includes transparent
accounting, equitable profit sharing, interest-free loans for the
workers, free lunches, and support for women workers with young children
or others in their care: they are allowed to arrive up to an hour later
than the official beginning of the work day, at seven in the morning,
Salcines told Tierramérica*.

Human capital played a decisive role in raising production at this urban
agriculture venture, founded in 1997 on an initial 800 square metres of
land in the community of Alamar, around 15 kilometres east of downtown
Havana. This is why Salcines believes that the key to achieving food
security in Cuba lies in agricultural workers with a "vocation" for
farming, as well as training.

In 2012, world food prices skyrocketed as a result of poor crop yields
in various centres of agricultural production, such as the United
States. The Caribbean countries, which are net food importers, suffered
the greatest impact in the region, according to the Economic Commission
for Latin America and the Caribbean (ECLAC).

Less than five percent of the population of Cuba suffers from
malnutrition, but the country was forced to spend over 1.633 billion
dollars on food imports last year, an unsustainable expenditure for an
economy in crisis for more than 20 years, specialists say.

Reducing this massive expenditure by raising domestic food production
remains a challenge for the government of President Raúl Castro. In
fact, in the first quarter of this year, the National Office of
Statistics and Information reported a 7.8 percent decrease in
agricultural production other than sugar cane.

"There is a big demand that needs to be met, which is why we are able to
sell everything we grow," said Salcines, one of the founders of the
cooperative, which now covers a total of 10.14 hectares and produces
more than 230 different crop varieties (primarily garden vegetables, as
well as some fruits, grains and tubers) in greenhouses and open fields.

In the midst of a generally inefficient agricultural sector, Vivero
Alamar has achieved consistent growth for more than 15 years, thanks to
the constant upgrading of its organic farming methods, which have even
earned the praise of the director-general of the United Nations Food and
Agriculture Organization (FAO), José Graziano da Silva, who visited the
cooperative earlier this month.

In 2012, they produced 400 tons of vegetables, 5.5 tons of medicinal and
"spiritual" plants (used in religious rituals), 2.6 tons of dried herbs
and spices, and 350 tons of worm manure.

They also produced 30,000 ornamental plant and fruit tree seedlings and
three million vegetable seedlings, some for their own planting needs,
others for sale to other farmers, reported Salcines.

Fresh vegetables, especially lettuce, are the products most sought after
by the local residents in Alamar, who have begun to learn in recent
years – like people in the rest of the country – about the benefits of
including more greens in the traditional Cuban diet of rice, beans,
"viandas" (starchy tubers and plantain) and pork.

"The first time we planted cauliflower, in 2000, it all got left in the
fields, because nobody knew what it was," plant health engineer Norma
Romero told Tierramérica. In her view, one of the most important
contributions made by the more than 33,000 urban and suburban farms in
Cuba has been the expansion of access to and consumption of vegetables.

Thanks to a new initiative at Vivero Alamar, recipes for the preparation
of different vegetables and mushrooms accompany the lists of products
available at the cooperative's sales outlet, as part of its business and
educational strategy. The shelves also stock pickled vegetables, fruit
preserves and garlic paste, produced through its own small industry

Although organic produce can be prohibitively costly in other countries,
the organic fruits and vegetables sold by Vivero Alamar are actually
priced lower than those produced with agrochemicals and sold in private
farmers markets, where the prices are set in accordance with supply and

"The affordable prices are the biggest attraction. A head of lettuce
costs four Cuban pesos (five cents of a dollar) here, and everywhere
else they charge 10 pesos," regular customer Sonia Ricardo told
Tierramérica. "The vegetables here are fresh, they have no pesticides,
and the service is really fast," she added.

Despite these low prices, the cooperative is able to earn good profits,
production chief Gonzálo González assured Tierramérica. Eighty-five
percent of its products are sold directly to the population, and the
rest go to restaurants like La Bodeguita del Medio, a major tourist
attraction in Havana.

Since it first started out with just five people, Vivero Alamar has
progressively moved towards a closed-loop farming system that reduces
waste and environmental damage.

"We try to buy as few inputs from outside as possible," explained
González, which is what led to "the idea of producing our own manure and
various bio-pesticides and fertilisers."

Vivero Alamar raises bulls to obtain manure, has set up "worm bins" to
produce earthworm castings, another organic fertiliser, and breeds
mycorrhizal fungi (which attach themselves to the roots of plants and
promote their growth) as well as insects and microorganisms that can
boost crop yields naturally. The cooperative has also established links
with 17 scientific centres for the incorporation of new organic farming
techniques and products.

Today, the 195 people who work here are striving to raise production by
40 percent to reach the farm's full potential output, and have also
expanded into raising rabbits and sheep, in order to include meat in its
sales to the public and improve protein consumption among the
neighbouring population, some 30,000 people.

The staff is made up of 175 cooperative members and 20 employees, and
boasts a high overall level of education, with 92 university graduates
and 42 technical college graduates. Women currently account for only 46
of the 195 workers.

"A farm can do much more than produce food," commented Salcines, as he
watched a group of foreign tourists who had booked a guided tour and
organic lunch at Vivero Alamar.

* This story was originally published by Latin American newspapers that
are part of the Tierramérica network.

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