Cuba Day Two: From commodity crops to local sustainable farming

Today we started off at the Antonio Nuñez Jimenez Foundation for Nature and Humanity (the acronym for the name in Spanish is FANJ), an NGO with a very broad agenda related to culture and the environment. Nuñez Jimenez, who created FANJ in 1994 at the age of 71, was both a revolutionary (here he is with Che Guevara and Che’s daughter) and a professor of geology, a scientist with an international reputation. And, like Darwin, Shackleton, and others before him, he was a scientist-adventurer—In 1987-88, he set off with a group to cross South America to Cuba by canoe, following the Amazon River east and the Orinoco north, then across the treacherous open waters of the Caribbean to landfall in Cuba. Our guide Handy (I didn’t get his last name) showed us the very canoe that he paddled, as well as a map of his (arduous!) route. (He was then 64 years old. I am now 64 years old. Would it be sullen of me to point out that I most likely couldn’t paddle a canoe across the street?)

At any rate, after Handy’s tour of the foundation museum and library, we met with Maria Caridad Cruz, coordinator of the FANJ Program for Local Sustainable Development. Yesterday we had learned about Cuba’s early commitment to commodity crops (sugar, coffee, tobacco), the collapse of those markets, and the emergence of other models like farming cooperatives. Walking through the fields of the UBPC Alamar, we had seen one example of smaller-scale, highly diversified farming. Now Maria sketched out for us the whole  FANJ vision of what food production in Cuba could become.

At the most local level, FANJ helps people learn how to grow family gardens. And with 75% of Cuba’s people now living in urban areas, many without a plot of land for a garden, FANJ also shows people how to build gardens on their rooftops. The gardeners aspire to follow the ideals of organic gardening and permaculture: close the circle. They collect rainwater in cisterns, filter “gray water” from their sinks and showers, re-use building materials, recycle and compost, use small animals (chickens, rabbits) and animal waste, and (in the most thorough-going cases) use dry toilets and convert human waste to usable garden fertilizer. (Seriously. More on this later.)

These family gardens produce vegetables, medicinal and culinary herbs, fruits, and flowers —and produce them prodigiously!  FANJ also offers a program about how to sell their excess produce. And FANJ supports seed exchanges, both for family gardeners and for larger-scale farmers.

FANJ’s programs are small but growing. They now have 25 functioning groups in seven (out of Cuba’s 15) provinces, and they have 120 promoters (“promodores”) around the country, getting into the smaller communities with their mission and programs.

But a word about the mission. Yes, they want the Cuban people to grow food to enrich their diets and supplement their incomes. But they have a broader social mission: to develop active citizens who are working together to solve problems at the local level.  They aim to involve whole families (farming has historically been a male occupation), and to encourage people to have a lively Interchange about their practices, their problems and solutions, and their dreams. I will return to this theme later; I came to realize by the end of my trip that it was really the cornerstone of what I was learning in Cuba.

Next we visited the Cuban Association of Agricultural and Forestry Technicians (ACTAF) where we talked to Fernando Funes, the Coordinator of Agro-ecological Projects. Fernando took us on a personal journey through the landscape that we had been visiting. At first his agricultural education had been very specialized, in the spirit of the Green Revolution; he studied pastures and cattle exclusively. Then the blow fell:  the USSR collapsed. He likes statistics; he mentioned that during the early part of the Special Period, 100,000 cattle died. He added that he himself lost 25 pounds. (This is not a large man.) People felt the raw fear of not being able to feed their families.

At that point, people began to adopt early forms of agro-ecological techniques. They kept poultry, pigs, and honeybees; they applied biological fertilizers and manures, used nematodes, minimized fuel usage, and more. They incorporated small animals into their food system, using plant byproducts to feed the animals and animal byproducts to feed the plants. He led the way in incorporating forestry systems and pasture systems into overall food production, use of inter-crop planting, and so on. At the beginning of the process, he told us, it took eight units of energy to produce one unit of food; by the third year, it took only three units of energy to produce four units of food.

The process of revising the system continues; he told us that under the new guidelines developed under Raul Castro, people can now claim unused or fallow land to farm under the “usufruct” system (basically, long-term leases from the state). But he pointed out that Cuba still imports at least 50% of its food. (Some of our informants put the figure at 80%.)

We will revisit many of these themes, and see wonderful examples of these processes at work, over our remaining days. But we also took some time in the afternoon to savor beautiful Havana! We first walked through the Plaza de Armas, with its graceful spaces. Then, on the way to the Plaza de la Catedral, we passed a building that was unfinished, but its blank concrete facade had been brought to life by a mural of the society of Old Havana. And finally we visited the plaza of the cathedral, with its beautiful facade speaking of the centuries of Spanish life that had unfolded here.

But we weren’t done for the day!—We had the evening free, so we decided to have dinner at a paladar, a privately-owned restaurant typically located in the owner’s family home. We found one nearby (somehow; not my doing, certainly) and just showed up (no reservations). (Sidebar: my greatest regret is that I didn’t get any good photos of the ’50’s American cars, startlingly well-preserved, that we saw everywhere—though I have to add, mixed in with Priuses, BMWs, and other contemporary models. Well, there will be a next trip.)  But what a treat the paladar turned out to be!! We ate extremely well; turtle, shrimp, chicken, mango, black beans and rice, and more. Once again, Cuban cuisine proved to be very flavorful but not spicy-hot, carefully prepared and served in generous (very generous!) portions. Presiding over our meal is trip coordinator Zoe Brent of Food First. (Thank you, Zoe, for helping us discover this wonderful place to eat!)

 

 

Best-kept secret in town: Lunch at Seattle Culinary Academy

Did you know?– the students in the Seattle Culinary Academy want to serve you lunch! The SCA, part of Seattle Central Community College on Capitol Hill, has three (three!) different restaurants staffed by chefs-in-training who prepare the food and serve it to you in style. On top of that, in the summer they offer a special small-plates menu, which I sampled a couple of weeks ago. It was a big moment for me!–Earlier this summer I had watched these very same students learn to grow the  ingredients I was eating. And therein lies a story.

My connection to the SCA actually goes back several years, when my friend Donna and I took a series of evening cooking classes in the professional kitchen there. (Donna was good; I was . . . learning.) What a series!–stocks, soups, sauces, poaching, steaming, grilling, roasting, braising (who knew about braising?), eggs, poultry, pasta, grains, veggies, seafood, dairy–chef Hope Sandler marched us through weeks of hands-on cooking, with (miraculously) no casualties, other than one or two minor cases of blood-letting and mutual burning.

You’d think after that I’d never need another cooking class in my life! But I keep signing up, and one of the best I’ve ever taken was a two-day class offered by chef Sally McArthur at La Conner Flats, an 11-acre English country display garden and working farm north of Seattle in the Skagit Valley. After a full day of cooking in the farm’s Granary, we ate our dinner alfresco at a long table on the lawn, then played boules in the garden’s beautiful allée.

But Sally gave us more than a cooking (and bowling) class; she also painted us a picture of the lush fertility of the Valley (which is on the same latitude as France’s Loire Valley) and of the careful stewardship that sustains it. Besides getting acquainted with garden owners Bob and Margie Hart, we harvested tomatoes for our meal at the  Hedlin Family Farm nearby, and tasted Pasek Cellars berry wines in the garden’s gazebo. We munched on cheese from Samish Bay Cheese with the co-owner Suzanne Wechsler. And we learned about the many projects of Skagitonians to Preserve Farmland, an activist farming organization that I’m dying to tell you more about (and will–but that’s another story!). Suffice it to say that I immediately joined SPF and have been an avid follower of their activities ever since.

Small world!–At the beginning of summer the SPF newsletter landed in my in-box with a front-page story about the SCA! The connection?–The SCA was about to offer a course on sustainable food systems practices, organized around weekly field trips up to (you guessed it) La Conner Flats. It turns out that Bob (who is also president of the SPF board) worked with SCA chef and instructor Gregg Shiosaki to develop the course, now in its sixth year (nobody tells me anything). And each year, Bob sets aside a plot of farmland where the students can learn the “best practices for sowing, cultivating, and harvesting vegetables and fruit.” Long story short, thanks to Bob and Gregg, this year I got to tag along. (I’m putting together a micro-movie about the experience; stay tuned.)

These students know how to work!–Every week, they plowed, pricked, planted, hilled, and dug like old hands. And each week they loaded up their bus with crates of the farm’s produce for the SCA larder, harvested in part from the same fields that they had worked.

Which brings us back around to my small-plates lunch at the SCA! These same apprentice farmers were now, crisp in kitchen whites or servers’ black-and-white, staffing an entire buffet restaurant, from host station to prep, line, table, and service. Here’s how it works: you stop at the host station by the front door and buy tickets for 75 cents each (I got 12); the plates range in price from one to say five tickets each. You then wander from buffet table to buffet table trying to compose your meal out of the bounty in front of you; finally, you drop some tickets in a bowl and add another plate to your tray.

Chef Gregg was all over the place, dropping a word of advice here and showing a small trick of the trade there. After watching Gregg demo its preparation, I had to have the seared salmon salad with oriental vinaigrette; Claire prepared my serving beautifully, all the while answering a barrage of questions from me about the ingredients (lots!–basil, mint, cilantro, frisee, candied orange peel, grapefruit, orange, lime, pecans . . . I’m forgetting some). (I’m guessing she wanted to crown me with that pan.)

Next I zeroed in on the Skagit Valley farm slaw, presided over by Ryan, who also happily ran through the list of ingredients (cabbage, carrots, shredded snow peas, Fresno pepper . . .) At that point, I had to sit down and eat! The salmon salad and slaw made a nice combo.

For my next round, after mulling over a number of possibilities I went with the borek (a puff pastry with potato filling, with a red pepper coulis and feta dill dressing) and a Thai cucumber cup with olive tapenade and pan au lait. Did I mention that these guys get high points for presentation? Earlier, chatting with Rachel (that’s her in the first picture of the SCA buffet tables), I learned that she had first studied art; she loves food styling and presentation. I don’t think she’s alone!

Now it was time to choose a dessert, which is no mean task; SCA has a killer Specialty Desserts and Breads program, and they were really piling it on. Racks of desserts kept rolling out of the kitchen, and the dessert table looked as long as a football field. A flan? A cake? A pie? Meringue, anybody? But my ticket stash was as nearly empty as I was full, so I settled on a scoop of lemon-basil sorbet. The perfect last bite!

In the dining room, Alice and Richard were serving, and at a slow point I got Alice to tell me a little bit about the program’s curriculum. One of their required courses explores the psychology of human relations; they really think about the roles that food and eating play in our sense of well-being. It struck me that they were doing a good job of translating a small part of that thinking into the concrete actions of unobtrusive, pleasant service.

So, for less than $10, I had an excellent meal prepared and served by a whole crew of diligent, delightful professionals-in-the-making. And afterwards, I strolled a couple of blocks over to the new location for Elliott Bay Books and spent a few minutes browsing through the new releases. A great way to turn a lunch hour into a mini-vacation!

The small-plates program is over for this summer, but the Square One Bistro opens on Wednesday October 5th and the One World dining room opens on Thursday  Oct 6th. The Buzz, open now, offers baked goods and pastries (and coffee, natch). (The days and times vary; before you go, check the website for details.) But this is one secret that nobody should keep–you can get a really great lunch at the SCA!

Tilth’s demo garden: Life in the sustainable garden

Standing in a garden on a warm sunny day, watching cream-colored butterflies flutter among the tidy plots of vegetables, listening to the buzz and whir of hover-flies and bees, I wasn’t really thinking of Tennyson’s “nature red in tooth and claw.” But I was touring Seattle Tilth’s demonstration garden, and tour leader Amy Ockerlander was just then telling us about watching a centipede cut up a cabbage worm and eat it. How can you raise the odds that you’ll have a hungry centipede patrolling your garden patch? We were there to see how Tilth harnesses natural processes to grow healthy vegetables in sustainable ways.

Big message number one was start with mulch. (That’s Amy by the huge pile of it.) Especially in a climate like ours, where it rains all winter long and then in summer (usually!) rains hardly at all, mulch soaks up moisture, keeps nutrients from being washed away, and suppresses weeds that fight your veg for nutrients. Plus it provides a happy home for critters like centipedes, spiders, and other helpful killers. You can also protect your soil by putting down a layer of feed bags (especially effective over the winter here to keep soil dry-ish). This is Seattle, so of course we go for coffee-bean bags!

Mulch was only one “layer” strategy we talked about. Those cream-colored butterflies?–As they flutter prettily from plant to plant they are laying hundreds of dot-sized eggs on your cabbage-family plants that hatch into voracious bright green cabbage worms. One way to mess them up is to put in a physical barrier–cover the plants with row cover, a light cloth sheet that keeps the butterflies from sticking their eggs to the leaves.

In following the “layer” strategy, you don’t always have to put the layer on top. In “hugelkultur,” the raised garden bed starts with a layer of rotting wood (chips, twigs, sticks, branches . . .) at the bottom. Then you mound the soil on top. Think of the wood as a “nurse log” for your plant, sponging up water and nutrients that otherwise would leach away.

To thrive, your garden also needs pollinator insects like mason bees. The Tilth gardeners have constructed mason bee “blocks,” little bee condominiums, under the eaves of the building, so that the bees can over-winter and re-populate year after year. And to attract pollinators, the garden has flowering ornamentals planted among the vegetables.

Some plants naturally thrive when planted together, like the “three sisters” in Mexican farming: corn, squash, and beans. (Normally, the corn would be close to eight feet tall!–but here in Seattle, it’s lucky to hit five feet.) The corn provides a trellis for the beans to climb up, and the squash shades the roots of the other “sisters.”

Big message number two was keep your resources where you use them. They use a rain garden to manage the rainfall runoff from the building–about 20,000 gallons of it in a typical year! (This is water that isn‘t going into the sewer system, to be processed and then bought back from the city to water the garden. That’s a long round trip to water that veg patch over there!) Pipes capture the water and feed it to a narrow trickle of rock-lined stream bed that delivers it to a  bowl-shaped depression about five feet across. The thick plantings hold it there until it soaks out to the surrounding area. They also use compost “digesters” to break down plant trimmings into nutrients that leak out of the bottom into the surrounding soil to be taken up by the next-door-neighbor plants.

Amy described the whole sustainable gardening endeavor as “bringing life into the garden.” I loved to hear how cleverly these master gardeners wove together and managed the thrust of life in soil, plants, insects, light, and water to make a healthy, bountiful harvest. But for me, it is also a sustaining pleasure to see the order and grace of their well-tended garden–to sit on a lovely trellis bench and gaze at the garden, to admire a fragrant stand of basil corralled by an artful soldiering of bamboo stakes, to imagine beans scrambling up the string trellis behind the lettuces in their hoop pergolas. I love these minutely tended plots that speak so eloquently about the diligence and hopes of the people who built them!

Vertical potato ranch

Have you ever grown potatoes in a barrel? This is my year, I’m sure of it.

Last year, after a promising beginning, I bombed, probably  because of my usual sin of overkill–too much water, too much plant food/the wrong plant food . . . You get the idea. Just when I started going out every morning to check for potato-vine blooms, the whole patch turned yellow and (eventually) slimy. Depressing. Last summer was cooler and rainier than usual, anyway, so I just gave up, pulled up the vines, and left the barrel full of compost to over-winter.

Then this year, Linda the Gardener suggested that I go out there, clean out the barrel, and start over. I always do what L the G tells me: but on tilting over the barrel to dump it out, what did I find just below the surface but a bunch of jaunty little potato vines! Looks like I did better than I thought last year–grew some babies and left them to sprout this year.

So I used some of last year’s plant stakes to tie up a little trellis (I mean, these guys are going to get TALL!). And I started to add more dirt (dirt this year, not compost). The idea is, when the vine pokes up about four inches above the surface, you bury it again, leaving just about an inch sticking up. The stem then says, “oh wait!–I’m not a stem–I’m a root. Let’s be making some potatoes along here.”

And you keep on filling until the vines grow out the top of the barrel. That’s where the trellis comes in–as they get taller, you train them up the trellis for support. Meanwhile, every couple of weeks you add some plant food, and you make sure that you water deeply–but not too often! (I need to drill more holes around the bottom edge; I have it sitting on an open-work cement block, and I drilled some big holes in the bottom, but drainage is everything.)

So maybe this year I will be able to complete the cycle! Toward the end of the summer, the vines will bloom; after that, they will produce new potatoes all along the buried vines. On any pleasant afternoon, I’ll decide that dinner won’t be complete without some Yukon Golds, so I’ll go out and scrabble around in the barrel until I come up with a hand-full of tender young potatoes, which I will go into the kitchen and cook right now!

Eventually, the vines will die back, and a couple of weeks later, after the potatoes have hardened off, I’ll harvest them and store them in straw in the garage, to eat all winter! Please, let this happen this year!

Update!

As of July 16, my potato vines are tall and blight-free! All I’ve done is add a little plant food every couple of weeks, water sparingly, and support the stems by tying them to the trellis with velcro loops. Soon, I hope I’ll be eating potatoes!

Update on the Update!

I never dug deep enough in my potato barrel to find any new potatoes; my friend Bob Hart warned me that a problem with growing in a barrel is that, to get to the potatoes, you sometimes end up doing too much damage to the plant. So I was cautious.

Then these flourishing green vines began to droop and yellow; I didn’t know whether they were just following their usual cycle or dying of some dreadful blight. So I took my usual path–I idled and watched.

Finally, on a sunny day about a week ago, I just decided to tip over and clean the barrel. Guess what!–scraping out the dirt and compost, I suddenly hit the mother lode. Potatoes! Big fat Yukon Golds, a mounded colander of of beautiful earthy potatoes! I’ve steamed some, I’ve fried some, and tomorrow I’ll roast some, and I’ll still have plenty to go. Next year I have to do two barrels!