Ignacio at a small organopónico (urban farm) in Cienfuegos
Sorghum is planted at the ends of vegetable beds to keep bugs away. When the Soviet Union collapsed in 1989, Cuba lost its biggest trading partner and also its source of cheap, subsidized oil. Cuba plummeted into a time of economic crisis and food shortages referred to as the "Special Period." Imported products like agricultural fertilizers were no longer affordable. Since oil became prohibitively expensive for Cubans, the nation is considered to have reached "Peak Oil" in the early 1990's. The Soviet Union's collapse forced Cuba to find solutions to their food and gas shortages across the island. Once Cuba lacked the resources for chemical-intensive farming, the entire country quickly converted to nearly 100% organic agricultural production. In a few years, market vegetable gardens were constructed within cities in closer proximity to the country's population eliminating the impossible costs required for transport and refrigeration. These small urban farms are called organopónicos. As the rest of the international community faces the prospect of reaching "Peak Oil" in the future, many farmers and environmentalists are looking at Cuba today to see how they endured during the Special Period and how they created one of the highest concentrations of urban organic farms in the world.
Almost all farms I visited used marigolds at the ends of their beds as an organic insect repellent. The photos above and below are from Vivero Alamar outside Havana. This farm has received international funding, employed over a hundred farmers and utilized some advanced organic farming techniques, like devices attached to the irrigation hoses to magnetize the water. Although I had watched a video documentary of this farm before coming to Cuba in which a Mexican volunteer explained that it was enjoyable and easy to pop in and lend a hand, the folks at Vivero Alamar seemed fearful to allow me to spend time onsite with just a tourist visa. They seem to fear repercussions from the government for hosting tourists while not being sanctioned to do so. They did ask me if I was a terrorist (though half-joking, I think) and told me I could spend more days there if I obtained a work visa, (which sounded nearly impossible with the necessary time, money and signatures required.)
On one of the few channels available on Cuban television, they sometimes show educational farming programs. They discussed pertinent organic techniques like intercropping, crop rotation, when to plant seeds, etc. for the casual home gardener or professional farmers.
Friendly farmers in Cienfuegos...
The plant above is a type of oregano. Oregano was also frequently used as an organic insect repellent on the borders of vegetable beds all around Cuba.
Fields of tobacco in Viñales
This garden was interesting. It's a garden of the local MinInt office. MinInt is short for Ministerio del Interior, (Interior Ministry), which is basically like Cuba's federal police. This would be like local branches of the FBI having their own personal organic vegetable gardens! One evening I strolled by and a guy who was harvesting told me that it was fine to come in take a photo, but it was getting dark. The next afternoon, I walked by and tried to enter the garden again but a different man sternly told me that I could not enter nor even walk alongside one side of the fence because the garden belonged to the police.
These farmers were transplanting tomato plants. While some farmers around Cuba were welcoming, some, like these, were quite suspicious of me and my intentions. These in particular asked me to leave before I "contaminated" their beds with my non-farm clothes.
This gentleman cultivates a farm of medicinal plants in Viñales. He was quite friendly and introduced plants to me that I was not familiar with.
Farmer at an organopónico in Trinidad. Just outside the city center, there were three small farms all next to each other along the road.
Another farmer in Trinidad