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!)



Learning from Cuba: Agro-ecology, urban farming, and making do

Hemingway, Fidel, Bay of Pigs, the missile crisis, Venceremos, Marielitos, Elián—the threads of so many stories of Cuba are woven through the fabric of my own life! I was just eleven years old, catching my first glimpse of a world wider than Kingsville, Texas, when on New Year’s Day 1959 Batista fled the country and Castro’s revolutionary forces took over. And now, more than a half-century later, I have finally visited beautiful Cuba. My tour, a joint offering from Food First, Global Exchange/Reality Tours, and Amistur, focused on Cuba’s developing agro-ecological food system. I learned so much!—Over the next few posts I’d like to take you with me to the foundations, farms, neighborhoods, and small enterprises that we visited, and introduce you to some of the Cubans whose labors are building the system.

Day One: Sunday July 8th

Actually, Day One was supposed to be Saturday July 7th, but we spent it in the Cancun airport waiting for our Cubana flight; we finally go to our Havana hotel at about 5:00 Sunday morning. So we dumped our early Sunday-morning plans and slept in.

But we re-grouped around 11:00 and set off for UBPC Alamar, in the suburbs of Havana. A “UBPC” is a “basic unit of cooperative production,” one of several organizational structures of farms in Cuba. The story of the origins of the UBPCs brings together a number of themes that will come up again and again as we learn about Cuban agriculture. The story, like so many others here, is a story of cataclysm and recovery. Up until 1989, Cuban farming was organized into large state-owned agro-industrial “green revolution”  farms that relied on expensive heavy machinery and large amounts of imported chemical fertilizers to produce mono-crops of sugarcane, coffee, and tobacco. By far the largest trading partner?—The Soviet Union. But in 1989 the Soviet Union collapsed, and so did Cuban agriculture. Once again (as it had after the 1961 US blockade began), Cuba lost 80% of its trade, including the market for its crops and the imports of food that had fed the populace. Thus began the “Special Period” (still continuing today) in which agriculture (among other sectors) underwent radical change. In one such change, beginning in 1993, a number of large state farms were broken up and turned over to cooperatives made up of the farm-workers who had been wage-earners on the land before—thus the birth of the UBPCs. The land itself was granted in “usufruct” (essentially, a long-term lease of the state-owned land). Sustainable agriculture began to be understood as a matter of national security, and organic and agro-ecological techniques began to be adopted.

At UBPC Alamar, Miguel Salcines, president of the cooperative, walked us through the good-sized farm with its lush vegetable and herb crops striping the rust-red soil. Here he is explaining their use of irrigation and covered structures (—for shade, rather than for raising the temperature, as we use them here in Seattle; I’m here to tell you that they do not need to raise the temperature. At all. Whew.). By the way, pretty much our entire group is in this photo; there were just  nine of us, plus our tour coordinator Zoe and our guide/translator Jesús.

Among the other sustainable practices in use at Alamar are interplanting (here of lettuces and green onions), drip irrigation, integrated pest control, and vermiculture (using worms to turn cow manure into organic matter for compost)And they aren’t trifling with that operation either; they produce about one ton per day of organic matter, and sell what they don’t use.

The cooperative plans to grow; the farmers hold shares in the organization based on the length of time they have been members, and profits are distributed per share. The group votes on policies and practices, and Sr. Salcines told us that their decisions can’t be overruled by outsiders. They also have a community mission; they do educational  tours and workshops for the local schools.

We ended our tour with a delicious meal served alfresco on the farm:  fresh plantains, mangos, squash soup, black beans, malanga (a potato-like tuber), fresh juice, and more. We also saw one of our first instances of the Cuban “make it do” mentality—old bus windows pressed into service in an outbuilding on the farm.

Back in town in the afternoon, we took a little walking tour of the Plaza de San Francisco and Plaza Vieja in Old Havana. Remember that the Spanish were thriving in Cuba as early as the first years of the 16th Century; Havana’s streets and plazas are as elegant and baroque and wasted as only five complex centuries can make them. But throughout the twists and turns of our walk, it seemed to me that Cuban wit and creativity winked at us from all sides. What had we learned so far about Cuba? Here at the end of our first day, I couldn’t say; I found myself distrustful of my own delight in what I was seeing. Was our experience being managed? Certainly. Were the people we were meeting open and analytical and willing to question their own practices? Yes. The one thing I was sure of was that I needed to learn more.

Freeze your carcass! (And make broth)

I’m snowed in! First we got snow; then we got freezing rain; then more snow. Frosted ice! Here’s the view out my kitchen window..

So nothing sounded better than putting a big pot on the stove to simmer all day. I’ve actually been collecting the ingredients for a good broth for months now. Back in October, I made Chinese chicken wings; for my recipe, you don’t use the wing tips, so I cut them off and froze them (a dozen of them!). Then, a couple of weeks later, I boned some chicken breasts and poached them; I threw the raw bones into a freezer bag. My big Christmas turkey ended up, picked clean, down to a bag of bones in the freezer. And when I cut up Rex the Rabbit for braising, I ended up with some bits and pieces of backbone, also bagged and frozen. Into the pot!–raw and cooked, chicken, turkey, and rabbit.

Stock is made basically from bones, bones, and bones (cooked, roasted, or raw),  with enough water to cover them. Add a mirepoix, which is just a mixture of chopped onions, carrots, and celery (equal to about one-fifth by weight of the bones). Simmer forever! Then in the last 30 minutes or so, add a sachet of bay leaf, parsley stems, cracked pepper, thyme, and garlic clove. I cooked my stock for a total of about seven hours, skimming it and stirring it occasionally. I added no salt; since I had brined the turkey, it had salt enough. Then I strained it through cheesecloth. I ended up with almost two gallons of stock!

With this mix of ingredients, it’s not an elegant stock, but very flavorful. I used a big ladle of it to make a soup for my early dinner, with frozen peas and toasted croutons made from last week’s rustic bread. I ate it sitting in my warm and fragrant kitchen, watching my icy garden slip into darkness.

Cooking rice–The pot or not?

Today I decided to break into my Lefever Holbrook pork chops. (Remember Conor and his hog operation? I introduced you to him back in January. I just recently got some of his luscious pork!) I pulled out the smallest one, but still a mighty chop indeed!–I’ll eat just half of it tonight. I pan-broiled it, then dressed it with a pineapple salsa: chopped pineapple, lime juice, cilantro, minced ginger and garlic, and a little sambal hot sauce for tingle.

It’s cold out there tonight! I added some roasted squash and put the whole thing on a bed of rice, with a small green salad.

Digression #1: I decided to try a trick that I just learned last Friday at the UW Club’s wine dinner. Instead of making a salad dressing, I just tossed the leaves in plain olive oil. (Well, not so plain!–A beautiful Portuguese oil made on the same estate as the wine that was featured at dinner: Herdade do Esporao.)

Then, on the plate, I put some of the pineapple salsa on the lettuce as well, and the fruit’s acid with the oil became the dressing!–Very nice.

Digression #2:  About that UW Club wine dinner!–I videotaped it and (as soon as I figure out some technical details) will post a micro-movie about it. There’s a great “kitchen adversity” story there too–stay tuned!

Now back to that rice. Before, I always made rice in a saucepan, and it either turned soupy or went off the crunchy deep end. Then about ten years ago I bought an electric rice cooker for maybe thirty-five bucks. Best investment I ever made! I almost always get lovely fluffy rice.
But now a minor controversy has broken out in my beginner-foodie circle: are rice cookers strictly for beginners? I don’t believe it, so I went right to the source: my friend Mani, who grew up in Vietnam. Here’s his take: “rice cookers are very very easy!! the new ones can also do steaming of vegetables, soups, etc. the asians have used electric rice cookers since the late 1960s even in places like vietnam, cambodia, etc. There are many chinese / vietnamese markets selling them at excellent prices here.” [NB: Mani doesn’t capitalize. waste of effort, in his view.]

However, on reflection, that doesn’t exactly put the argument to rest. Is “easy” an option exercised only by beginners? Or do accomplished cooks in Asian cuisine (like Mani!) also go for convenience and predictability? What do you do??