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).