HAVANA TIMES, May 18 — A great deal of controversy has been created by an agricultural marketing experiment in the two Havana provinces. Resulting food shortages at markets have forced producers —the majority of whom use pejorative descriptions when they refer to the current system— to voice urgent demands for changes and adjustments.
“What’s needed is to get food from the field to the Cuban dinner table as directly as possible, without so many intermediary steps – like the current nine diabolical ones that exist now,” said Havana-area farmer Lazaro Hernandez, who is president of the Antonio Maceo Cooperative of Credits and Services in Bejucal.
“With the chain being so long, losses occur because the products wither away, losing approximately two percent of their weight per day,” he explained. “If they’re delayed five days in getting to the consumer, they’ll lose ten percent of their mass, which costs in terms of shipping expenses for fertilizers and oil.”
I checked on this at the weighing station in Bejucal, where deliveries to the capital were held up for three days waiting for trucks to transport six tons of cabbage, a product that dehydrates quickly.
On an individual level, the losses for the producers are significant. Hernandez gave the example of the case of guava, which the Ministry of Domestic Trade wants green at the time of shipping, since it rots with delays in getting it to market. However it’s better for the producers to sell it when it’s ripe, because this fruit gains 20 percent of its final weight in its last 48 hours before full maturation.
“So, when we deliver 100 quintals of green guavas, we lose the opportunity to sell 20 more quintals that we could have picked when the fruit was ripe. Plus, the public likes to buy guava that’s turning ripe or mature. It’s the same thing with watermelon; however, if we ship these out when they’re mature and then there’s a three or four day delay, they rot and have to be sent it to the pigsty,” said Hernandez.
Notwithstanding, Yosbel Gonzalez, the president of a nearby State agricultural entity, thinks things have not gone so bad under the current centralized distribution scheme.
“I look at it favorably with regard to the previous system; it’s better organized. Sure there’s a need to better gear the mechanisms and heighten the concern of those people in charge of marketing production so that better quality product gets to the consumers more quickly. But if everything works right, the system will achieve that.”
No containers mean poor handling
The issue of the containers used for transporting the harvest not returning is one of the Achilles heels of the current structure. It affects the scheduling of the harvest, the transport of products and especially the quality of the produce.
Rebeca Grimalt, a 20-year veteran at the Ministry of Agriculture and an economic specialist with the Agricultural Products Commercialization Unit in Bejucal, assures that MINCIN (Internal Commerce Ministry) does not return the containers. “Our books show the number of containers in our inventory continuing to increase, but we don’t have them on hand.”
“During the current tomato harvest, we’ve had to load almost all tomatoes in 300-pound crates that are usually used for industrial products. That type of large container causes the product to deteriorate; plus they make commercialization difficult, because you can only move these crates mechanically,” added Grimalt.
Ramon Peña, the director of the Storage Unit, pointed out that: “There also exist problems of organization and control. Some things need to be adjusted, among them transportation, which arrives late and affects the quality of the products.”
Successes and contradictions
Surprisingly, the current system of commercialization relies on a logistical base that is superior to the preceding one. The company that serves the agricultural markets for the city of Havana, for example, previously had a fleet of only 76 trucks; now it has 200.
Another of its virtues is the more equitable distribution. The capital city’s Weighing and Purchasing Unit distributes the goods in portions to the State markets (MAE) so that all the municipalities are covered.
Nevertheless, the contradiction between supply and demand have been at the center of discussion because the commerce ministry works with a focus on consumer demand, but that is not the signal that farmers want to use to direct their planting. Also, owing to rigid price mechanisms and policies, if there exists a production peak and the farmers oversupply beyond their commitment, the established approach is for this surplus to be sold directly to the industry, even if it is prime quality.
Several marketing specialists agree that quality is the key point of commercialization. Frequently, when they inspect trucks coming from the principal markets they have to continually demand better quality.
Idael Saserio, a commercial specialist with the Weighing and Purchasing Unit in Bejucal, defends the current system tooth and nail. He doesn’t share the opinion that the farmers should deliver their products directly to the sales points. “The supply and demand markets are an outrage; it’s highway robbery. If they’re better supplied, it’s not the fault of the State mechanisms; we don’t receive the same things as them, not in variety nor in quality.”
“We have to unite the mechanisms to fight them head on, we can’t let them win. It’s true that the unregulated markets are an alternative, but they’ve never functioned properly. The day they decide to close them, the state markets will have some of everything, because the farmers will continue producing,” said Saserio.
The valley of the shadows
In a worrisome choir, the State market vendors complained about the recent impact of the shortage of commodities on their income. “Incentive pay is based on sales, but if there aren’t any products, how can we fulfill our plan?” asked Leosdan Capote, a vendor in the La Lisa community. He says that since this commercialization system went into effect —almost one year ago— he received an incentive payment for only one month (December).
“We work from Monday to Sunday, and the basic wage is 250 pesos a month (about $10 USD),” Leosdan complained. “However, the greatest concern about this irregularity is in that what suffers most are the consumers’ pockets and refrigerators. Like the old saying goes, the rope always breaks at its weakest point,” the vendor concluded.