A Bad Year for Agriculture in Cuba’s Eastern Provinces

By Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Corn in Mayari, Holguin

HAVANA TIMES – In Cuba, the pre-established calendar year doesn’t coincide with the farming year. There are two well-defined planting seasons, which aren’t determined by human whim but by Nature itself: spring and the cold season. Which doesn’t mean to say we really have spring or a cold season. Let’s say it starts in March and ends in February, the following calendar year. But, last year was a truly catastrophic year for Cuba’s Eastern provinces.

Sowing in spring begins in the third month when it rains for the second time, to be precise. This nearly always happens in the second half of the month. When it rains the first time, farmers let seeds of plants they don’t want to sprout and when the second rains come, they make the most of the moist soil to sow their seeds and to get rid of the “budding plants” they don’t want.

Corn is the East’s most emblematic crop, which continues to be what guides the rest. In spite of it having been gradually put to one side because of its financial value when compared to other more profitable crops such as tobacco, tomatoes and beans, it still marks the two planting seasons because it is sowed during both and Nature has made the differences in its growth clear and has imposed different cultivation methods. In spring, corn continues to be the most planted crop.

In the cold season, which begins in September, planting begins in the second-half of the month when it begins to pour. It’s the most profitable time of year for Cuban agriculture because it’s when beans, tobacco, tomatoes, cabbages, peppers, leafy vegetables and onions are planted. These are crops which can reap better financial rewards for farmers if they are tended to properly and aren’t damaged by a natural disaster. Crops planted in spring are also a lot more fruitful during the cold season. Others, such as potatoes and rice, which are preferably “cold season” crops, are managed by the State mostly.

Spring in 2017 was very dry and corn harvests were lost, which was a bad start to the farming year. In this part of the country, watering was only increased recently when many young people made a move into agriculture, who are much more business-minded than their parents and grandparents who were traditional farmers and planted in areas without irrigation, playing with seasons. This has also been a result of the influence technological developments, promoted by the State for some crops which sometimes include irrigation systems. However, this doesn’t reach even 20% of poorly irrigated lands.

Then, to top things off, our past cold season was extremely wet, which is unusual here in the country’s East. Even though this inevitably coincided with our normal wet season (November-February), rains exceeded Cuba’s historic average by 285% and by 300% in my province (Holguin). I have never seen such persistent rain over such a long period in my lifetime.

Crops were greatly affected. The tobacco harvest, which is a very important export product, was a complete disaster. Not even a third of what had been planned (at least in Mayari) could be sowed, where it was estimated that 250 hectares would be grown in a crop season, which was put off beyond the ideal sowing date for no reason in the end. Another third of what was planted was lost due to excess moisture. I couldn’t even save 10% of what I had wanted to grow. The sugar harvest also suffered great losses.

As this is the crop season which generates greater revenue for farmers, there has been a very negative impact on farming families’ purchasing power as a result of these losses. Tobacco is a crop which is planted after a lot of investment has been made on different occasions and it has been lost time and time again, which this year will leave over 150 farming families here in debt, in “default” with the Credit and Commerce Bank (BANDEC).

Even though the causes of these losses have been natural, and as a result of our insurance not covering anything really and not functioning as it should, farmers were recently told that bank “default” interests would go up by 4%, which those affected are obviously very worried about. And to make the landscape a little more grim, taxes on farmers will go up as of this year as they will need to pay for the compulsory Sworn Affidavit and ongoing tax on personal income, which will they will need to start paying in the first trimester of 2019.

On the other hand, as a result of poor local harvests, animal feed has decreased and livestock farmers are buying supplies from black market sellers who traffic it from other provinces, which is nearly always stolen from the State in many different ways, and is very expensive to buy. As a result of this, pork production costs increase and pork is the population’s main source of protein.

Within this context, the local government in Mayari implemented a counter-productive measure which was to lower the price of pork to 20 pesos, which was supposed to be good for the population. But, because animal feed is more expensive than meat (which doesn’t leave a profit margin), people have stopped raising livestock for the time being and it has become really hard to find pork at retail sales points after midday. And maybe it’s because of this or maybe there are supply problems, but chicken and eggs have also disappeared from hard-currency stores and markets over the past month.

It really was a terrible year and even though things are picking up now, the financial repercussions of this (with high prices, shortages and debts) will still be felt over the next few months. Ordinary people, who only suffer their problems without looking to find the root cause, as well as the fact that this crisis has taken a turn for the worse at the same time we’ve had a change of Government, are blaming Diaz-Canel.

Let’s hope that the farming year that has just begun is better and helps us lessen our problems, which are endemic to the Cuban system, but have undoubtedly been made worse by Nature’s cruel hand.

Osmel Ramirez

I'm from Mayari, a little village in Holguín. I was born on the same day that the Vietnam War ended on April 30, 1975. A good omen, since I identify myself as a pacifist. I am a biologist but I am passionate about politics, history and political philosophy. Writing about these topics, I got to journalism, precisely here on Havana Times. I consider myself a democratic socialist and my main motivation is to try to be useful to the positive change that Cuba needs.

One thought on “A Bad Year for Agriculture in Cuba’s Eastern Provinces

  • What remains of Cuba’s original agricultural industry is in a poor ever declining condition. with hundreds of thousands of acres of good agricultural land reverting to bush. Osmel writes of seasonality, but crops such as tomatoes could be grown in Cuba – which is a natural greenhouse, year around. But in January it isn’t even possible to buy fresh tomatoes necessitating canned product from Spain and the US. Another example is sweetcorn – why don’t Cubans grow it? My wife looks forward to eating it when in an other country, but we can’t get it in Cuba.
    However, Osmel hits a nail on the head when he writes of the counter-productive policies of the regime. Reduce the price to producers = reduce production, its that simple. But evidently Marino Murillo and his economic buddies don’t comprehend.
    There has been no change in the government of Cuba. The Communist Party of Cuba has precedence over the State. Who is First Secretary of the PCC? – Raul Castro Ruz! Diaz-Canel is merely a second fiddle (fiddling being a common practice in both the PCC and the administration).
    The other main source of animal protein in Cuba is chicken, usually frozen, predominantly from the good ol’ US of A, and predominantly supplied by Tyson. Cuba is quite capable of producing chicken and actually does so in relatively small quantities (a relative of mine manages a poultry unit), but it could produce much more if the regime would get out of the way and allow the marketplace to flourish. However, the regime fears an open marketplace as it seeks to control everything.
    It’s that sad saga of communist dictatorship in action.

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