Cuba’s Farming has its Mysteries, Misfortunes and Beauty

Osmel Ramirez Alvarez

Photo: Jenny Cressman

HAVANA TIMES – After a long period of severe drought, the downpours that “broke” the spring in March and April came as a blessing. “Breaking the spring” is what farmers here call rain around the first equinox (second half of March).

Everybody suddenly planted their crops, hopeful that harvests would be very promising. But the drought came back and we had another four months without any rain. Barely two or three “drizzles from the north” in over 100 days. It was a disaster because everything that had been planted was totally lost again.

To make matters worse, when it rained again in the second half of August (which is unusual at this time of year), many of us planted our crops once more, but the rains haven’t let up thus far in September. It’s really rare for us to have storms in August! Many crops have been overtaken by weeds that are flourishing and seem to be reveling in this successive rain.

I have planted a field of yucca twice and lost both the crops. The first time, it was really scant because of the drought, in spite of me watering it. Any bit of water was scarce with so much drought. The earth was like a volcano emitting heat, seeds roasted and water evaporated as soon as it touched it. Then came all this rain, as if Nature felt indebted and wanted to pay us back all at once. Too much water has made the trunk cuttings of yucca plants (gusabalos) that we plant rot to the point of disappearing.

Now, overdrawn because of expenses and with low expectations of making a profit, dreaming instead about making up my initial investment, I am clearing the grassland so we can plant again. I can’t give up. I won’t plant yucca now, the time has passed and October is looking the same so it’ll just get ruined again. Corn would be better because it sprouts in five days and there is less chance of a storm hitting it in this time and me losing the harvest.

After these climatic events that have affected many, people in the countryside have been reflecting and sharing stories and a special one popped up. Before the Revolution, there was a system of cooperative work that prevailed in these fields, without the existence of an organized cooperative thinking about this, a practice which has been gradually lost over time. Yet, it was really effective because farmers supported each other with sowing and harvesting their crops. They formed “committees”, which is what they were called.

Someone who had too much work piled up, whether that was sowing a large field, weeding or a harvest, would tell the others. It could even be putting up the roof on a house or ranch. They would kill one or two hens, the women would cook a great big soup with root vegetables and a couple of cheap bottles of aguardiente were mandatory.

Everyone who could make it would come and the job would be done in a flash. That’s how they would beat storms to the chase, tending to or quickly collecting a harvest. If it was a matter of sowing on dry land, they would come with several teams of oxen and tankers on wheels, watering the land from the river bucket by bucket. With so many people, it would act like an aqueduct.

We have a cooperative today (I say today, but they’ve been around for over 50 years now), but we don’t really have cooperative work. It rather acts like a straitjacket or a way to hinder production, most of the time, or as a way to extort from farmers in favor of Cuba’s State purchasing entity ACOPIO. Mercantilism and individual interest prevails among farmers. Nobody helps anybody, everything has a price and sometimes, you can’t even get a few people together with money, because what you can afford to pay isn’t enough to incentivize people.

The reality is that the Cuban countryside needs great change and to become much more efficient. Real cooperative work, including efficient companies and farms, a normal market with stable supplies, so that it can become efficient and even competitive.

As well as Nature playing tricks on us from time to time. It does what it wants, following its cycles and not bending before our wishes and interests. Nevertheless, in spite of these ups and downs, working the land and producing food is a very fruitful activity. Not only because it generates revenue, but also because of the simple pleasure of watching something we need to live sprout from the ground.

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.

6 thoughts on “Cuba’s Farming has its Mysteries, Misfortunes and Beauty

  • One of the truths about Cuban farming is that those who do so as individuals are restricted to being what was formerly known as crofters. Advancement to farming greater acreage than the usual 3 to 4 acres is prevented by communist theory and practice. Efficiency and profitability by scale are denied. In Russia, Stalin eradicated the so-called Kulaks who usually farmed some 30-50 acres with the inevitable consequence of massive reduction in grain production, leading in turn to robbing Ukraine’s production which in turn led to starvation of millions in Ukraine.
    Whereas Cuba’s Castro regime has not reached the extremes of Stalin’s Russia, it has by application of communist policies, reduced agricultural production to a fraction of former levels. Sugar production as an example falling from over 9 million tons to 1.2 million tons per annum.
    But one factor remains the same. Second Secretary of the Communist Party of Cuba, Machado Ventura appears on Cuban TV visiting sugar refining plants wearing a blue hard hat every year.
    World population increases have necessitated tremendous advances in food production and much of that depends upon achieving scale. In Europe, potato production reaches 35 tons per acre due to bed growing – the traditional rows having been abandoned, wheat production achieves 4 tons per acre, efficient grass production enable maintaining dairy cows on 1.1 acres, sows average over 23 piglets per annum and so on. Tiny Holland with its population of over 17 million, is the second largest food exporter in the world through efficiency and application of modern techniques. So where is Cuba? Well 32% of its former agricultural acreage is reverting to bush – and the citizens have difficulty in obtaining sufficient food – although over 80% is now imported.
    This is communism in practice!

  • Osmel,

    Very well written article. Farming, even at the best of times, irrespective of the country has its challenges. As Cuba attempts to move more into a competitive capitalist system with each individual looking after his/her own interests and away from the more socialist system of helping one’s neighbor in need, isolation from other farmers becomes more apparent and discouraging. Nevertheless, as you summarize very poignantly, the true nature of farming is “… the simple pleasure of watching something we need to live sprout from the ground.” A very universal conclusion.

  • Guess that you are a very old man Joe. Cuban agriculture has not yet reached the same stage as Scottish agriculture in 1930.

  • Visited a cuban farm back in march.. was like going back to my childhood!

  • Osmel, if you like things to be better in Cuba then get yourself a nice rocking chair, a flufy cushion and get ready to sleep and dream.There is no willingness to improve things in Cuba.Sixty years making the same mistakes and blaming the United States is all the government cares about. At this point, and way before Trump became president the country has the same problems and nobody cares to solve them.

  • Everytime I read about how hard it is at times in Cuba I want to help more. I love the people and have made many friends there from Havana to Santiago de Cuba. Thank you for all you do in such tough times.

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