Cuba Day Six: Back to Havana, by way of the secret garden of Pelegrin

Settling in on our minibus for the trip back to Havana, I see on our itinerary that our next stop is “Project of Sustainable Agriculture and Food Production Pelegrín.” I figure that we will see another organic farm like the ones we’ve visited over the last few days. So wrong!

Here’s our driver Nafal relaxing on one side of the front porch of the Pelegrín house, and a shot of the even more exuberant other side. More going on here than agriculture! But before we explore the other surprises of Pelegrín, let’s take a look at the gardens.

The raised beds of vegetables contained by borders of roof tiles show us once more that the production of beautiful food can itself be beautiful. Close by, we find a coconut tree weighted with fruit. Would you like to try it? Oh, yes! Suddenly somebody is up the tree, and the next thing we know, a machete is out, a hard nut has been topped for each of us, and we are sipping coconut water—the slightly cloudy thin liquid from the center of the fruit, with its fresh herbal fragrance—right from the shell. Here’s Alex enjoying his. 

We return to the central cluster of walkways, two-story thatched cabanas, patios, and workshops. The creator of patio Pelegrín has helpfully provided  signs to help us explore the compound: dance, literature, debate, music, theater—a network of workshops, nested on this small property, for local residents to cultivate their artistic and intellectual  interests.

Here is a group of “elderly” women (most of them appear younger than I am) practicing the craft of constructing handbags; I wish that I had gotten a picture of their product, and even more I wish that I had bought one!—They were extremely well-constructed and stylish.

The creator of these delights (he would insist that it was a local community effort) is Mario Pelegrín Pozo, painter, ceramic artist, and cultural promoter, shown here with one of his own works (purchased by one of us, I should add!).

We lingered in the gallery with its paintings, ceramics,  and handmade furniture. See that painting over Raj’s shoulder?—it will soon be hanging over my desk! (I’ll tell you more about Raj in a future post, but for now,  check out Generation Food Project, his current movie project with Steve James, director of Hoop Dreams.) We relaxed over a cup of coffee in the café literario. We wandered around the grounds taking in the maze of artworks and thatched structures. I wish I could spend more time with you exploring the birdcages and rabbit pens, the grain mill, the visiting hawk who hangs out on the front porch,  the fountain, the well, the rescued alligator in his hog-wire cage (big!—soon to be picked up for a return trip to the wild). But it is time for lunch!

And what a lunch. It will be a while, here at home, before I can really enjoy an avocado, or a mango, or a banana; the exotic warm aroma and rich flesh of the just-picked fruit still has me seduced!

As it happened, it was also Melanie’s twenty-third birthday, so her dad Peter staged a little celebration for her. (The family is Greek; Melanie is a vegan chef, and Peter is a contractor who specializes in building diners. What a great pair to travel with!—The morning that I was sick, Peter brought a nice breakfast to my room to tide me over while the group was off on a tobacco farm; he waved off my thanks with “I’m a good mother.”)

After our morning’s dalliance in this magical place, we aren’t easy to organize, but eventually Zoe and Jesús get us back on the bus headed for Havana, where we meet with Juan José León from the Ministry of Agriculture.

Sr. León is a crisp antidote to our morning’s artistic meanderings; a small farmer turned revolutionary, he has a long memory and a ready command of facts and figures. He sketched in for us, through the eyes of the farmers, the tumultuous early days of the Revolution in 1959.

The agrarian reform laws of 1959 nationalized and redistributed large land holdings—those owned by Cubans (including the Castro family, by the way)  as well as those owned by foreign individuals and companies—but allowed each owner to keep 400 hectares of land. (The seizure of property owned by American citizens led the U.S. in 1960 to impose the embargo on Cuba that continues to this day.) Small farmers were allotted the land they were working, up to 67 hectares. (Why 67?—It turns out that there’s a measurement larger than a hectare, a “caballeria,” which consists of about 13.4 hectares. So, five “caballerias” equals 67 hectares.) Also, over 100,000 other families received at least one hectare (2.5 acres) or more. About 60% of the nationalized land remained in state hands and about 40% was redistributed to land-owners and small farmers.

But, he said, the large land-owners didn’t take advantage of the 400 hectares they were allotted, and instead of farming, conspired against the Revolution. So in 1963 the state nationalized those 400-hectare plots as well; 80% of this land was held by the government and 20%  was distributed directly to farmers. The state organized the lands it retained into the large state farms that we have heard of before, worked by farmers as employees of the state. (After the fall of the Soviet Union, these farms would be broken up into the UBPCs like Alamar that we visited on the first day, which hold their lands “in usufruct”—basically, a long-term lease—from the state.) Of the farmers who became land owners, some chose to consolidate their lands with others to form a cooperative. (In this case, they gave up individual ownership by selling the land to the cooperative and becoming a share-holder in the coop.) Other farmers retained ownership of their land but formed cooperatives to work together on the logistics of farming (like El Paraíso that we visited on day five). The “revolutionary process” of land distribution continues; new laws passed in 2008 created a means to redistribute unused or poorly administered land. A farmer or coop can now get a 13-hectare grant of such land (more or less a “caballeria”), and can ask for even more, up to 40 hectares.

But how do these people sell their crops? Sr. León explained that the state purchases 100% of “trade” crops like tobacco, cacao beans, and coffee. In addition, farmers are required to sell 80% of certain categories of produce to the state, but can sell the remaining 20% on the free market. The restricted categories cover 21 products:  among tubers, for instance, malangas, sweet potatoes, yams, and potatoes; in vegetables, onions, garlic, pepper, cucumber, and tomatoes; in fruits, mango, guava, citrus, papaya, and pineapple; in grains, rice, corn, and garbanzos; and in dairy, milk. There’s a lot on this list! (The state’s 80% of these products covers what Sr. León calls “social consumption”—the needs of hospitals, schools, day-care centers, old-folks homes, etc.) For products not on the list, farmers can freely sell whatever they produce. Also, farmers can contract to sell directly to tourist operations like hotels.

But it turns out that small-scale urban agriculture operates outside this system. (Lots of exceptions!—It appears that Cuba is trying any number of different models these days.) Growers who live within a 10-kilometer radius of a city can freely sell 100% of their produce. Tomorrow we will visit a bursting handful of gardens like these.

We have had a long day!—But we have one more stop before we head back to the hotel: the Food Conservation Project “Vilda and Pepe.” For fifteen years now, the couple (Vilda trained as a chemist in animal nutrition, Pepe as a mechanical engineer) has been working tirelessly to teach Cubans how to preserve food.

Remember that, when the Soviet Union disintegrated starting in 1989, within two years Cuba had lost its main trading partner and 80% of its trade—trade that included much of the Cuban food supply. Vilda gave us a vivid picture of the impact of this loss on the Cuban dinner table. The calorie intake of the average Cuban adult fell from about 3,000 calories a day down to 1,800 a day. Protein intake dropped from 90 grams a day to 45. During this harsh period, Vilda and Pepe drew on their backgrounds in nutrition and engineering to learn how to preserve food for themselves, and then decided to share what they had learned in their own kitchen.

They use natural techniques and methods that work in ordinary Cuban kitchens—solar drying and dehydration, fermentation and pickling in vinegar, pasteurization. They developed a simple sterile sealer for bottles and jars from “found” materials that can by copied easily (easily, at least, by the endlessly resourceful Cuban people). They developed tasty recipes and offered classes for housewives, kids, and food producers. Over time, they attracted funding from national and international NGOs and other sources to help them scale up their operation.

Their outreach combines face-to-face approaches with extensive media efforts. Volunteer “promotores” take the participatory training and then fan out into the community to show their neighbors the techniques; children come into their “test kitchen” for classes once a month, learning hands-on how to prepare healthful meals and preserve produce from their family gardens. Vilda and Pepe also have created something of a media empire—they have a weekly half-hour radio show and a publishing house that distributes their books and multimedia products. They now reach 15,000 people face-to-face, and over radio and TV, about 1.5 million people per year. Their services are free; the media sales help fund the organization.

Their efforts allow farmers to add value to their produce and enable people to enjoy seasonal foods like fruits across the year. And remember that Cuba lies in the middle of “hurricane alley”—in 2008, for instance, they had two hurricanes within two days that destroyed over 750,000 pounds of the food supply. Thanks to Vilda and Pepe, many Cubans can now rely on a small  pantry of preserved fruits and vegetables to help them through such crises. To learn more about their work, visit Food Conservation Project “Vilda and Pepe.” (It’s in Spanish; use “translate this page” in Google search).

Cuba Day Three: Biosphere and the lotus eater of Las Terrazas

Today we set out west of Havana to Las Terrazas to visit the Biosphere, a UNESCO biological reserve. What beautiful countryside! We arrived at the eco-station just in time to be pelted by rain, but we were able to ignore it with the help of a drink, some Afro-Cuban music, and a fact-filled introduction to the reserve.

The Biosphere consists of 25,000 hectares (a hectare is about two and a half acres) in three nested zones—a nucleus of natural reserve (no people!), surrounded by an ecologically managed buffer zone, in turn surrounded by protected zone of managed resources including family farms. In the nucleus, the reserve boasts 900 different species of plants, 131 species of birds (50% of them migratory), 32 species of reptiles, and thousands and thousands of species of insects. Only large mammals and other fauna are considered under-populated by the standards of bio-diversity; 75% of them are bats. (At sunset that evening, I passed up the opportunity, which I gather comes up daily, to watch a swarm of bats sweep out of the caves near our hotel for their nightly feeding. I was coming down with a cold; I faded, I’m sorry to say.)

The scientists at the reserve are working to repair ecological damage done over centuries.  In the colonial period, coffee growers stripped the area of its forests to develop their vast fincas; now the scientists are replanting with over 130 species of native trees and other vegetation. They also have fish farms that support 21 different species, 13 of them native to the region and two found only in the reserve.

They also are working to build agro-biodiversity. The farmers in the reserve live in the village of Las Terrazas (constructed for them when the reserve was created) and have farm plots in the surrounding hills.  They contribute seeds from their crops to a strictly controlled seed bank and exchange seeds both among themselves and with farmers in other regions. The scientists keep track of the farmers who are growing indigenous crops following traditional techniques and make sure to collect seeds from them. The seed bank ensures that these crops can be planted year after year, and provides resources to help repair the crop damage done by hurricanes and other natural disasters that lash Cuba.

Once again, we found that these agro-ecological practices had a human heart and social mission. The project “Mi plato y yo” (“My recipe and myself”) collects recipes, often handed down from grandparents to grandchildren, of indigenous foods prepared in traditional ways. The published collections tell the stories both of the dishes and of the cooks who contributed them—a great way to celebrate the traditions of Cuban food preparation and tempt cooks to try the techniques of these elders in their own kitchens.

Time for lunch!—We wound our way through the village to Eco-Restaurant El Romero, “gourmet of the Cuban ecological cuisine.” This improbable gem is the brainchild of Tito Nuñez Gudás, vegetarian chef, forager, and food artist (seen here against a backdrop of the wetlands and fields where he forages many ingredients for his menu). We started with pickled lotus root, fresh and delicate. Following that, we had soup (several different kinds for each table; mine was a lovely brothy vegetable soup, and others had cold pumpkin soup or black bean soup). Our main-course plates were a buffet unto themselves—a torta, herbed brown rice, a taco, several kinds of vegetables, all artfully plated (my notes are a collection of superlatives barely readable through splashes and smears of the meal itself). We ended on a high note with a chocolate pudding served in a little leaf boat. We puzzled over what gave it its depth and complexity but ended up having to ask:  some pumpkin, some peanuts. How did they do that?—It was the best chocolate ever!

All of this carefully prepared and beautifully presented food emerged from the small kitchen in the corner with its fresh herbs and shelves of handmade condiments, where the chef and servers handily choreographed our meal. But where did Tito find vegetarian chefs of this caliber?—Locally, of course, trained under his careful eye. Describing the first reaction of his pork-loving Cuban community to meals made only of plants, he laughed as he pushed his hands away from himself in the universal gesture of refusal. But now he works with the schools to explain the fare and trains students as interns to learn the preparations. Changing the diet of his community, one leaf at a time!

Note: There won’t be a “Cuba day four;” the cold I felt coming on today arrived copiously by night-time, and I spent the whole next day—our first in the beautiful mountain town of Viñales—in bed in a Claritan-induced smog. What did I miss?—Primarily a trip to a tobacco farm, which of everything we had on the agenda interested me the least (my swampy ex-smoker lungs would not have been amused). So, on to day five!

Spudnik! Growing 21st-century potatoes

Lots of ways to grow potatoes!  I grow potatoes in a barrel, and to harvest them I turn the barrel over and scrabble around for them in the dirt-pile. Last year, a class from the Seattle Culinary Academy grew potatoes in mounded rows at La Conner Flats, and harvested them with a hoe. Poor old van Gogh’s peasants trudged along behind an ox, planting potatoes one by one in a long furrow. and probably harvested them with a hoe too.

Forget the ox. Forget the barrel and the hoe. A few weeks back, I went on a farm tour in Skagit Valley that included a stop at Knutzen Farms, where Kraig Knutzen, a fifth-generation direct descendent of the original farm family, showed us how to get serious about growing potatoes. (My phone was dead!—so I didn’t get a photo. But let’s see if I can conjure up a picture for you.)

On the edge of a large plowed field behind Kraig’s barn, two huge machines idled. The smaller one began to rumble as it lobbed an avalanche of seed potatoes (potatoes cut into pieces, each piece with an eye) into the bed of the bigger machine.  The bigger machine, bristling with tanks and barrels and arms around its bed, loomed above the field on huge tires. Once it had a load of seed potatoes on board, a farmworker climbed into its cab, fired it up, and then, as it lumbered into action, tilted its steering wheel up and sat back with a laptop!—His driving job was done; the real navigator was a satellite a mile or so overhead that was chatting with an innocuous-looking yellow tripod farther down along the edge of the field.

This rig reads the minutest contours of the field; it can align the edge of each pass across the field within an inch of the previous pass. It not only plants the seed potatoes with precision, it also measures out the exact (and exactly minimal) application of dry or liquid fertilizer needed for each inch of the field. And it stores all of this data in a huge file so that the inputs can be compared to the harvest, and year can be compared to year. Kraig says they “just pull this big data set into Google Docs and monitor how it’s going over time.”

But wait, is this industrial overkill? How does this kind of mechanized precision agriculture fit into a vision of a sustainably managed family farm? Kraig had plenty to say on the subject. He pointed out that this technology enables them to get the maximum use out of the land with minimum inputs of fertilizer or other treatments. Combined with other strategies like integrated pest management, use of amendments that aren’t residual in the soil season over season, elaborate crop rotation schemes, and so on, the technology is one more tool that enables the Knutzens to fulfill their generation-to-generation mission to be wise stewards of their land. It also helps the farm to be commercially viable, so that the family can look forward to farming their land for the very long run.

The Skagit Valley farmers that I have met are a fascinating lot—on the one hand innovative  entrepreneurs, on the other thoughtful conservators of their farming landscape. Over the coming months, I hope to introduce you to many more of them!—Stay tuned!