June 26 – July 1, 2017

Jack and I traveled to Cuba with Peter House and Michael Hannen, long-time friends in Rochester and members of Peacework CSA. Cultural Contrast, an agency that specializes in Cuban travel, organized our trip, a licensed “People-to-People” exchange (https://www.culturalcontrast.org/).

Sunrise from the window of our 15th floor “casa particular”. A new day breading over Havana.

I have wanted to see Cuba for decades and decided to just go before I get too old to enjoy a visit to a nation that shares so many of my values.  Six days, a mere glimpse, yet better than nothing. Long enough to confirm that the Cuban revolution has made good use of their scarce resources. Cuba was a poor colonized country to start with and constrained even more by the US economic blockade. There may be few new cars, inadequate internet and building exteriors in need of repair, but the streets are safe, healthcare and education from elementary school through graduate studies are free, every citizen receives a monthly ration of basic staples (rice, beans, sugar, coffee, cooking oil), and city governments are required to provide housing for everyone.

Shop in old Havana where Cubans pick up their monthly rations of rice, beans, cooking oil, coffee and sugar.

You see no beggars or homeless in Havana, though plenty of hustlers. And since the collapse of Soviet support, there has been a great flowering of organic farms, urban and rural, guided by permaculture and agroecology.  That is what I was most curious to see and will write about here.

We spend our second afternoon visiting Organoponico Vivero Alamar, an organic urban farm started by Miguel Salcines and four others in 1997.

The entrance to Organoponico Vivero Alamar, an urban farm on the outskirts of Havana.

His daughter Isis Maria Salcines shows us around.

(You can get a good feeling for this farm from this short video https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JIWsxo5nNgg. and the documentary film Tierralizmo, directed by Alehandro-Ramirez-Anderson, features it.) Across the street from the farm is a neighborhood of 5-story apartment houses – Isis lives in one of them, so getting to work is easy.  Today, the farm coop includes 150 people and covers 10.4 hectares (25 acres). Isis explains to us that the farm is a cooperative, Unidad Básica de Producción Cooperativa (Basic Unit of Cooperative Production, UBPC), where the workers get both salaries and a share of profits. They work 7 hours a day and get lunch.  No one is working the day we are there; the summer is their slow time. Isis herself is about to leave for a month-long trip to the US to attend a Slow Food gathering where she is looking forward to meeting Alice Waters and Carlo Petrini.

The farm has several enterprises: a farm stand, an insectary, a nursery with ornamentals and fields for the production of vegetables and herbs.

The beneficial insect laboratory at Organiponico Vivero Alamar.

They produce fresh vegetables, fruits, ornamental plants, seedlings, timber and medicinal and spiritual plants, and also value-added products – dried herbs, condiments, garlic paste, tomato sauce and pickles; vermicompost, compost; goat and rabbit meat and mycorrhizal fungi.

Permanent beds of vegetables – bok choi in the forground – shaded by netting from the summer sun. A hedgerow of fruit trees surrounds the vegetable fields.
Beds of lettuce with a good view of the thin sheets of cement that hold the rust-colored soil. Note trickle irrigation tape down center of each bed and marigolds growing at the bed ends.
Detail of the trickle irrigation system.

90% of their sales are to the local community with the rest going to hotels and restaurants.  We see permanent raised beds, sided with thin strips of concrete, with lettuce, mint, bok choi, and beans growing and newly set-out pepper plants. A system of trickle irrigation is in place.

Field of corn and beans with view of nearby apartment buildings where Isis and other members of the farm cooperative live.

IMG_9197The torrential rains like the ones we saw the day before make those raised beds a necessity. The dirt of the farm paths is wet, but we do not sink in as we walk around the farm. Dense hedgerows of bananas, mangos, mayan breadnut, moringa, flamboyan trees, and other shrubs separate the fields.

Moringa plants – part of the diverse collection of edible plants and fruit trees that make up the hedgerows at Organiponico Vivera Alamar.
Bananas growing in the hedgerow.
Flamboyan flowers – these colorful trees grace the hedgerow at the farm and enliven many of the parks and public spaces around Havana.

The farm makes compost from the manure of a bull that is lent to them by the government to feed up and then taken away when grown. They were waiting for a new bull. In the meantime, worms are busy in long raised troughs sheltered from the sun by a netting. Isis says they amend their rust colored soils (high in iron) with 30 – 40 kilos of organic matter per square meter.

Isis digs into the trough where worms are working tirelessly for the fertility of the Alamar farm. Netting protects the worm beds from direct sunlight.

While their growing practices are organic, they use imported conventional seed provided by the government.

Seen through protective netting – a hoophouse planted with tomatoes.

Isis tells us that her dad’s first wish is that Cuba could have a Home Depot; simple garden supplies and hardware are hard to come by.  For herself, Isis would like to be the Alice Waters of Cuba and bring an edible garden to every school.

Isis Maria Salcines gave us a tour of Alamar farm – in photo from left to right, Jack Spula, Michael Hannen, Peter House, Santiago Flores, our guide, and Elizabeth Henderson

On June 28th, we drive 100 miles or so on a four-lane highway with sparse traffic past fields of sugar cane, cattle, mangos – trees heavy with ripe fruit, rice paddies, fish hatcheries, corn, oxen plowing, yaks, to the Valley of Viñales, a National Park, recognized as a Cultural Landscape for Humanity, a World Heritage site. On the winding mountain road to the village we see a billboard –“The word teaches, but the example guides.” Che

The tobacco route – the road we followed to reach Vinales.
Corn fields with the Vinales hills in the background. The tobacco farmers rotate corn with tobacco.

Just beyond the village, we visit Benito’s farm – 10 hectares (25 acres) granted to the family by the Cuban government.

The bohio (traditional tobacco drying shed and barn) at Benito’s Farm., next to a field of corn planted after tobacco harvest during the winter.

Inside their bohio, a traditional tobacco drying shed, Benito’s son demonstrates cigar rolling. He starts with a cluster of leaves, rolls them, aligning the leaves so that they all run parallel.  Then he covers them with a large leaf of another color and chops off the ends with a small machete.

Young farmer lights the cigar he just rolled for Jack. Tobacco leaves hang drying in the background.

We get to puff.  In their home, his mother regales us and a busload of other visitors with their own coffee, laced with a local rum (Alavao) that is the smoothest rum I have ever tasted.  They have cigars and coffee beans for sale. We buy coffee beans.

The yard at Benito’s farm – chickens running free under a diverse and multistory garden of fruit trees, coffee and flowers.
I wouldn’t mind hanging out my laundry with a view like this one of the “monolith” hills of Vinales!

Their little farm is a paradise – chickens running free under fruit trees (bananas, mangos, mayan, lime, oranges, bread fruit). The view from their hilltop – forested monolith mountains outline valleys with large fields of corn, grown in rotation with tobacco. Outside the door of their kitchen is a small patch of Yerba Buena for their mojitos. They grow coffee beans and tobacco, some vegetables.  In a small shed, we see a cow.

Coffee grows in the shade of bananas which grow in the shade of avocados and citrus.

We lunch at Finca agroecologica – El Paraiso. The paladar (privately owned restaurant) is at the top of a hill surrounded by a series of descending terraces covered with raised beds.

At La Finca – el Paraiso, an organic farm to table “paladar,” terraced beds surround the restaurant at the top of the hill.

The food is simply cooked and delicious, though Santiago Flores, our guide, ordered way more than we can eat – slices of roasted pork, chicken, tuna fish in spicy sauce, roasted roots – yucca, taro, sweet potatoes, squash, green beans, salad (spinach, cucumbers and radishes from farm, which we do not eat since we were warned not to eat anything raw.)

Marfray, the farmer in charge of soil fertility, shows us around el Paraiso. Note the corn plant next to marigolds at the end of each permanent bed.

Marfray (I never caught his full name) shows us around the farm.  A young man in his late 20’s, he is the farm’s soil specialist.  The permanent beds on the terraces are edged with thin cement slabs, as at Alamar, and some are faced with chunks of gray stone.  An irrigation pipe with a few sprinklers runs down the center of each bed.

Young spinach plants and mature green beans in terraced beds faced with native stone. Notes the deliberate planting of corn and marigolds for pest control.

The soil is a rich mixture of the native soil and a lot of organic matter, compost and vermicompost. Fun chen, lettuces, spinach, mints, hot peppers and green beans (very long, skinny ones) are the main crops we see.  At the end of each bed are mature corn plants and a flowering marigold or two.

Compost pile at the edge of one of the terraces.

On a few terraces, in place of an end wall are long compost piles.

A circular garden with vegetables and medicinal plants.

Marfray digs into the piles with his hands and shows us the abundant worms. One of the piles, he explains, is extra high in calcium. Lower down we enter a thatched open shed where rabbits are housed in hanging cages.  Their droppings fall into long troughs where worms turn them into rich castings.

Marfray puts his hand in the bee hive to show us how gentle these native Cuban bees are.

Also in the shed are wooden boxes housing native Cuban bees – stingless bees – and sacks of charred wood. (biochar?)    Lower down the hill are more terraces – one with a mature crop of okra growing next to pineapple plants.

Pineapple plants next to okra.

Along the path are fruit trees, some of them partially shading coffee bushes. There is an area strewn with assorted organic residues and dried palm leaves used to cover the compost piles and a charred area where Marfray burns native eucalyptus logs to make the biochar. Everything recycles.  Marfray shows us a large mortar made of oak for pounding corn or coffee beans. I noticed a similar mortar at Benito’s and at the farm-restaurant we visit later.  He tells us that the soil talks to him and he composes the piles with different ingredients depending on what the crops need. He tells us he was born in Viñales, studied auto mechanics and would like to work in Havana, but for the moment he is on the farm so he farms.

300 + foot tall mural dedicated to Cuban pre-history.

We tour the other wonders of the Viñales area – deep caves and a boat ride on a subterranean river, a 300 foot high mural, a tribute to the pre-history of the place – snails, mammoths and the indigenous people who once lived here, the magnificent view of the monolith mountains from Las Jasminas, a very fancy hotel, the town of Viñales itself, the streets lined with small colorful homes advertising bed and breakfasts.

Ox cart and bicycle on a street in the village of Vinales.

The streets are shared by horse and ox carts, bicycles pulling small wagons, motorbikes and large trucks.

cuba vinales cliff
The limestone cliffs at Vinales.

We stop at a botanical garden created a 100 years ago by two sisters – a wonderful collection of native trees, shrubs and plants, many familiar from the tamed version sold in NY as house plants.

Our young guide to the hundred year old botanical gardens in Vinales created by the two sisters whose photo hangs behind him.
Bread fruit make up the upper story over coffee.

A forest polyculture. On the way back to Havana, we stop to buy ripe mangos – lacking any other container, our driver and Santiago stuff a uniform with 40 mangos to share with family and friends.

Ripe mangoes. The government purchases 90% leaving 10% for the farmers to sell direct. This farmer piled up his mangoes next to the roadside in hopes of attracting buyers.


Forty mangoes fit perfectly in a one-piece uniform. Santiago and Alex, our steady, skillful driver, paid the equivalent of $15 for as much mango as they could carry away to share with relatives and friends. We got three – best mangoes I ever ate!

We later eat one – unquestionably the best mango I have ever tasted.

June 30

We start our last full day with a tour of a cigar factory, an enterprise proud of its prize winning cigars – many brands with slightly different shapes and sizes. Cigar exports play an important role in Cuba’s economy. Small farms, like Benito’s, supply the tobacco leaves.  90% of each farm’s production goes to the government, leaving 10% for the family to sell to visiting tourists. At the factory, both men and women roll the cigars.  They appear cheerful, working at a steady but relaxed pace.  A few smoke cigars or cigarettes while working.

cuba heming house
The Hemingway home estate where Hemingway lived from 1938 till shortly before his death in 1961, now a museum.

After a tour of Finca Vigia, Hemingway’s home-estate, we lunch at Il Divino, another “farm to table” paladar.

Il Divino, farm to table organic paladar (restaurant).

Beautifully designed, the restaurant is part of a five acre agroecological farm that combines a botanical garden of medicinal plants with multi-story plantings of native fruit trees and a few small fields of raised beds.

Juvenal, our guide to the Il Divino botanical garden of medicinal plants and highly diverse collection of trees, shrubs and vegetable plantings.

A wise elder named Juvenal gives us a tour of the farm.

Collection of medicinal plants at Il Divino. Senior citizens who participate in the daily program receive herbal treatments from the garden. Juvenal is both gardener and doctor.

Ten years ago, he and others proposed this project to the government which then granted them use of the land. (Our guide tells us it is still possible to gain use of land in this way.)

Field of permanent beds at Il Divino agroecology project.

We nibble our way around the fruit forest, tasting tiny lemons, cherries, red pears, and sniffing noni, a fruit that smells like blue cheese and has great anti-oxidant medicinal properties. The farm provides daily programming for 35 senior citizens – they socialize, eat excellent meals, get herbal treatments, and do handicrafts which are on sale to help fund the project. There is also a program for school children staffed by graduate students from a nearby school of the arts.

Six days – hardly enough time to get to know Cuba.  There is so much to learn from their experiment in sudden transition to organic agriculture. After ten years, if Organoponico Vivero Alamar is an example, their urban farms have become productive centers for nourishment, employment and training.

Old US car next to flamboyan tree and truck of same vintage at Benito’s farm.

I observed a well-preserved 1955 Ford and an equally ancient truck parked near the bohio at Benito’s family farm, suggesting moderate prosperity. When I ask the son whether he likes working alongside his parents, he gives me a look that says, “Are you crazy?” but replies politely, “Of course, I would not do anything else.” I have no data to make any large claims about smaller scale, intensive organic farming in Cuba.  What I observed, though, makes me think that they have come through the hard start up years and moved into a period of solid mastery and on-going innovation.  I hope to get back there.  I will work on my Spanish.  In a year and a half, on November 16, Jack’s birthday, Havana will celebrate its 500th anniversary. I would love to join the party.

After a downpour – View of Havana from the window of the restaurant on the top floor of the tallest building in the city.
An ancient banyan tree along a street in Havana.