By Lazaro Gonzalez
HAVANA TIMES, July 6 — For more than a decade in Cuba, it’s been very difficult to eat fruit. In the State-run markets they are rarely found. We can only discover a little in privately-run markets, though in quantities insufficient to satisfy the general demand and at sky-high prices.
Several factors have conspired against the traditional culture of cultivating fruit trees. Among the most marked for the campesinos are the low prices paid to them by the State, in addition to problems of distribution and commercialization, which remain unresolved.
Also hurting has been the scant publicity in the media and by agricultural institutions, believes Ricardo Rojas, head of the nursery at the Jose Marti Agricultural Producers Cooperative (CPA) in Ciego de Avila Province.
Agreeing was his neighbor, Oscar Vargas, who is in charge of a nationally recognized “model effort.” Vargas added: “We campesinos have been abandoned. If we planted fruit trees and were able to create the required conditions for them, there would be lots of everything. These trees demand special treatment; it’s necessary to keep them weeded and to give them lots of fertilizer.”
Missteps along the way
Nevertheless, since the end of 2008 in the Cuban countryside, a new zeal is gradually flourishing. Although the yields are still poor, areas with fruit trees are spreading throughout the whole country.
In Ciego de Avila, the Jose Marti Cooperative has contributed a great deal with its nursery, which is able to accommodate 700,000 seedlings. On occasion, though, they have been held back due to a lack of bags for transplanting, chief Rojas complained.
In 2009 they planted several land holdings with pineapple and guava. Currently they have 200,000 bags filled with mango seedlings that will be sown over close to 150 acres. “We want to plant different varieties that allow us to link these to a production timetable and to harvest throughout almost the entire year,” asserted Felix Lopez, the cooperative’s president.
This same cooperative, which reached the point of having close to 1,200 acres of citric crops, presently has only a dozen or so left – and the months for these that remain are numbered. This collapse was due to the battering of the “Huanglongbing,” known also as the yellow shoot disease, according to Lopez. Workers from the cooperative are now uprooting orange and grapefruit orchards planted on 165 irrigated acres and re-planting these areas with guava trees.
For his part, Hiram Alista, the president of the local lending agency (Credit and Services Cooperative), assured: “In this area, the mango trees in production were almost all in the State sector, and the fruit was never collected. The annual record for mango harvesting by the Citricos de Ceballos company was 125 tons, but by 2009 —the very same year these lands were leased out— the cooperative harvested 850 tons, which were converted into juices and preserves.”
“Notwithstanding, the weather has hit us hard this year, unfortunately, and we don’t have the same potential for mango production,” he added. “In February we were struck by several cloudbursts that almost took out all of the flowering buds on trees on our properties. A similar fate was suffered by the avocado crop.”
A little more to the west, in Formento, Sancti Spiritus Province, we arrived at a cooperative one afternoon as the guava harvest was in full swing. The president of this cooperative, Osvaldo Cancio, took a break from his work to tell us that the red dwarf guava can produce almost 19 tons per acre when irrigated. “But if they don’t get water, the trees affected under the stress of drought and the fruit falls to the ground. Here, we now have properties that have been affected by the drought. If the State wants to solve the problem of fruit sauce for children, it will have to provide fruit trees along with irrigation systems.”
In Santo Domingo, in Villa Clara Province, Alberto Nuñez, a producer with the Diosdado Perez Cooperative, also took a swing at the weather: “This year has been terrible for pineapple production. The rain has been scarcest and the sun the fiercest in recent times. A lot of pineapples have been sun damaged. We’ve lost a large percentage of the crops, basically the old pineapple trees, where the sprigs are now tending to fall.”
Fertilizer is essential
The resource deficit is another of the challenges facing fruit production in Cuba. Gabriel Gonzalez, president of the Diosdado Perez Cooperative said, “Because of the current economic situation, we’ve received few chemical products, and this year we haven’t received any fertilizers. Just recently the company assigned us 12 tons, but that’s not enough. We would need at least 50 percent of the required inputs to increase production.”
Alberto Núñez, agrees with him and argues, “If the pineapple trees aren’t fertilized, their yields will decline by half, and the shoots for the next crop are no good because those plants don’t have the same strength.”
Another partner from the same cooperative, Manuel Gil, expressed with sorrow how on their “property of national excellence,” La Maravilla, resources are lacking and how this threatens to devastate their exclusive grape plants, which help to substitute for imports.
“Right now, they’re not providing us with the fumigation service needed to protect the plants from powdery mildew, a fungal disease that affects the vines. These 10 acres take 20 backpacks of spray every seven days, and this year they have only sold us fungicide for barely three weeks.”
In Ciego de Ávila, the president of the Jose Marti Cooperative exclaimed, “If that weren’t enough, to get credit from the bank they’re now demanding that the Citricos de Ceballos fruit company certify the delivery of fertilizer to the campesinos. But who’s going to certify these if there is no fertilizer?” he asked. This is a way of denying us credit. If that is a Cuban bank and we citizens are the ones who dictate the laws, then why do they jam us up so much? In the nursery of the Jose Marti Cooperative the guava seedlings are sitting their deteriorating and we don’t have money to buy them.”
All these cooperatives are included in the Productive Fruit Tree Movement, a government-driven program that seeks to increase the volume and variety of fresh fruit selections available to the public, to create a stable supply for the agricultural and tourism industries, and to contribute to import substitution. In practice, however, production runs into obstacles that discourage farmers, especially when it comes to distribution and commercialization, the subject of the next report.