City Gardens Abound In Cuba, Where 70% Of Vegetables And Herbs Are Local And Organic

HAVANA, June 4, 2008

(CBS/ Reinaldo Gil)

(CBS) This story was written by CBS News producer Portia Siegelbaum in Havana.
“Buy local. Eat seasonal. Eat organic.” All now commonplace admonitions in the United States.

But while none of these slogans are household words in Cuba, 70 percent of the vegetables and herbs grown on the island today are organic and the urban gardens where they are raised are usually within walking distance of those who will consume them. So in one blow Cuba reduced the use of fossil fuels in the production and transportation of food. And they began doing this nearly 20 years ago.

The island nation’s move to organic and sustainable farming did not arise from its environmental consciousness, although there was an element of that also. The main reason was the beginning of the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989, Cuba’s only source of petroleum and main trading partner at that time.

Overnight long lines formed at gas stations that all too often ran out before all their customers could fill up. Traffic was virtually non-existent. Chinese “Flying Pigeon” bicycles replaced both private and public transportation.

“Puestos” as Cubans call the produce section of their rationed grocery stores displayed only empty bins as agriculture ground to a halt. Chemical pesticides and fertilizers vanished. Tractors became relics of a former time. Oxen pulled the plows that furrowed the fields.

Finding food for the dinner table became a day-long drudge. Cubans visibly lost weight. The communist youth daily, Juventud Rebelde, ran articles on edible weeds. Daily caloric intake dropped to about 1600 calories.

Organic agriculture “made its appearance at that moment as a necessity and that necessity helped us to advance, to consolidate and expand more or less uniformly in all 169 municipalities,” says Adolfo Rodriguez. At 62, he is Cuba’s top urban agrarian, with 43 years experience in agriculture.

He says there are now 300,000 people employed directly in urban agriculture without counting those who are raising organic produce in their backyards as part of a State-encouraged grassroots movement. In all, Rodriguez claims nearly a million people are getting their hands dirty organically.

With 76 percent of Cuba’s population of just under 11 million living in cities, the importance of this form of farming cannot be over emphasized, says Rodriguez.

I think that Cuba’s urban agriculture has come to stay.
Adolfo Rodriguez, urban agrarian
The urban gardens have been dubbed “organoponicos.” Those located in never-developed empty lots primarily consist of raised beds. More complicated are those created in the space left by a collapsed building, not uncommon in cities like Havana where much of the housing is in a very deteriorated state and where all it takes is a heavy tropical rainfall followed by relentless sunshine to bring down a structure.

“We have to truck in the soil,” before anything can be planted, explains Rodriguez. “The basic issue is restoring fertility, the importance of producing compost, organic fertilizers, humus created by worms,” he says.

In a majority of cases the fruits and vegetables are freshly picked every morning and go on sale just with a few feet of where they grew. Only in exceptional cases, such as the densely population municipality of Old Havana (as the colonial section of the capital is named) do the organic fruits and vegetables travel a kilometer or so by a tricycle or horse drawn cart to reach consumers.

Havana residents line up at the organoponico at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue, which grows a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs. (CBS/Manuel Muniz)

Lucky are the Havana residents who live near the organoponico at 44th Street and Fifth Avenue. Occupying nearly an entire city block, it grows a wide variety of vegetables, fruits and herbs, as well as ornamental plants. It will even sell fresh basil shoots for customers to plant in their own herb garden. On a recent day, customers were offered the following fresh produce at reasonable prices: mangos, plantains, basil, parsley, lettuce, garlic, celery, scallions, collard greens, black beans, watermelon, tomatoes, malanga, spinach and sweet potatoes.

Luckily for Cubans in general, organic here is not equivalent to expensive. Overhead costs are low. The produce is sold from simple aluminum kiosks, signs listing the day’s offer and prices are handmade, electricity is used only for irrigation, and no transportation other than walking from the raised beds to the kiosks is involved. The result? Everything is fresh, local and available.

Convincing Cubans to buy this produce, especially the less familiar vegetables, so as to prepare earth friendly meals, presented a hurdle. The ideal meal on the island includes roast pork, rice and beans and yucca. A lettuce and tomato salad was popular. But the idea of vegetable side dishes or an all vegetarian meal was inconceivable to most.

“We’re cultivating some 40-plus species but you have to know who your customers are,” says Rodriguez. “We can’t plant a lot of broccoli right now because its not going to sell but we’re making progress.” For example, he notes, in the beginning practically no one bought spinach. Now, all the spinach planted is sold. Persuading people to eat carrots, according to Rodriguez, was an uphill battle. “We had to begin supplying them to the daycare centers,” so as to develop a taste for this most common of root vegetables.

The “queen” of the winter crop is lettuce. The spring/summer “queen” is the Chinese string bean. Cuba’s blazing summer sun doesn’t allow for growing produce out of its season, even under cover, except in rare circumstances.

The saving of heritage fruits, vegetables and even animals has also gotten a boost from the urban agrarian movement. The chayote, a fleshy, pear-shaped single-seeded fruit, had virtually disappeared from the market. Now, Rodriguez says, 130 of Cuba’s 169 municipalities are growing the fruit that many remember from their grandmother’s kitchen repertoire in which it was treated as a vegetable, often stuffed and baked.

“We are working to rescue fruit orchards that are in danger of extinction,” stresses Rodriguez. “We’ve planted fields with fruit species that many of today’s children have never even seen, such as the sapote. To save these species we’ve created specialized provincial botanical gardens,” he explains.

Similarly, the urban agrarian movement is rescuing native animal species such as the Creole goat and the cubalaya chicken, the only native Cuban poultry species.

Currently spiraling global food prices are hitting the island hard. Cuba has been importing just over 80 percent of the food consumed domestically. The government is making more land and supplies available to farmers and this may well include chemical fertilizers and pesticides in an attempt to greatly reduce this foreign dependency.

Adolfo Rodriguez, Cuba’s top urban agrarian (CBS/Reinaldo Gil)

Rodriguez does not believe this push to quickly increase agricultural output will negatively impact on the urban organic movement. Even during the 1990s, known in Cuba as the “Special Period,” he says, the potato crop continued to receive chemical pesticides and fertilizers. And even today, the 30 percent of the non-organic produce includes, for example, large-scale plantings of tomatoes for industrial processing.

“I think that Cuba’s urban agriculture has come to stay,” concludes Rodriguez. “That there is a little increase in the application of fertilizers and pesticides for specific crops is normal but that’s not to say that the country is going to shift away from organic farming, to turn our organic gardens into non-organic ones.”

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Seattle, known as the emerald city to some, has urban agriculture popping up all over the place.  I’m actually going there in the fall to work with Seattle Youth Garden Works as one of their AmeriCorps garden coordinators.  I’m so excited!  I can’t wait to be part of this awesome community.  Here’s an article that was recently in the PI about urban gardening and food security in Seattle.  Below that are a ton of links to urban gardening stuff in Seattle.  Enjoy!

Gordon, a lead gardener at Seattle Youth Garden Works, holds up the bucket of compost he’s been speading. 

 

Written by Jennifer Langston

for the Seattle Post Intelligencer (June 3, 2008)

Instead of fighting hunger with grocery-store handouts, some see part of the solution in gardens, apartment balconies and front yards.

Over the past five years, the amount of fruit and vegetables grown or harvested in Seattle neighborhoods for food banks and meal programs has doubled to more than 44,000 pounds.

Though just a fraction of what fuels the emergency food pipeline, it will help meet unprecedented needs this summer, given rising prices and lines of low-income people that have ballooned since the holidays.

“It’s really key to our success,” said Rick Jump, executive director of the White Center Food Bank, which has seen its weekly demand increase by nearly 40 percent in the past several months. “We’re all out there striving to find resources.”

Soon, the food bank will start getting apples and plums from West Seattle yards — part of a neighborhood fruit tree harvest program pioneered four years ago by Solid Ground, a social service organization.

There will also be fresh vegetables from gardens worked by Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle, a new volunteer group also offering canning, gardening and tree-care classes at senior centers and local grocery stores.

“We’re trying to increase access to local fresh fruits and vegetables, not only by providing them, but also by teaching people how to grow and preserve their own,” said founder and West Seattle resident Aviva Furman.

At City Hall, conversations are under way to figure out how to expand programs enabling low-income gardeners to sell produce directly to urban consumers.

Generally, it’s illegal to sell from city P-patches, except for a small-market garden program allowing immigrant farmers in public housing developments to sell weekly bags of greens and produce.

Even foodies are struggling to shed some of the movement’s preciousness — peopled by those with the time to debate local vs. organic, or make handmade truffle pasta from scratch — and become more egalitarian.

“Unfortunately, people can get really snotty about where their food comes from,” said Willi Galloway, a Seattle Tilth board member who has worked to spread organic gardening to lower-income communities.

 

graphic

 

“It’s something that’s fun that everyone can do, and I hope our city becomes a place where everyone has a place to grow their food, regardless of income.”

At a recent container-gardening class at the White Center Food Bank, Regina Bash scooped dirt from the bed of a pickup truck with a yogurt cup and poured it into a bucket.

She planted a sturdy tomato plant in one pot, with salad greens, carrots and radishes sharing another. There were discussions on the best way to pick sweet peas (often) and protect roots (carefully). Experts answered questions on the science of propagation and the art of watering.

At the end, Bash carefully loaded one pot in a backpack, stuffed the other in a rolling duffel bag and headed toward the bus stop.

“I’ve always wanted cherry tomatoes because I love them,” said Bash, who lives in an apartment with no yard. “But I have a balcony … so my little patio is waiting for me when I get home.”

A few blocks away, at newly renovated White Center Heights Park, 17 virgin garden plots will be tended by local residents and food bank clients this summer.

Katie Rains, a former Rat City Rollergirl, has volunteered to grow vegetables and herbs specifically for the food bank.

“They get a lot of produce donations,” said the 25-year-old Evergreen State College student. “But the things they’re not getting are more of the cultural foods — bok choy, Chinese cabbage, cilantro, peppers, eggplant.”

Immigrant farmers at Seattle Housing Authority developments such as New Holly and High Point have been selling produce out of community gardens there for the last decade.

Now, the city neighborhoods department that oversees P-patches and community gardens is considering how to widen the program to include other low-income gardeners.

That could involve making more land available, or creating farm stands or other means to distribute local produce. But a major expansion would likely require partners from the private sector, said Rich MacDonald, the P-patch program manager.

One complication is a state ban on allowing people to profit from public resources. That’s why some have entertained creating market gardens or urban agriculture training programs on private land owned by churches, individuals or other community organizations.

“It’s a nice stable little program, but it’s little,” MacDonald said of the market garden program. “And it’s hard to imagine without a lot of resources that it would get much bigger.”

Paul Haas, development director for Solid Ground, has just that kind of ambitious goal: Acquire 100 acres over the next 10 years for food bank, low-income and immigrant farmers.

“The thing that’s been lacking in this is a great tangible vision, like the Kennedy space program,” he said. “It starts with ‘here’s two acres, we have this site, let’s do it.’ ”

Last week, Emiko Keller stopped by West Seattle’s High Point Market Garden on the first day of the season, picking up a bag of parsley, spinach, tah tsoi greens, radishes, bok choy and salad fixings.

High Point Market Garden

Her family splits a half “share” — which costs $310 for roughly four months — with a neighbor down the street.

“I like the feeling of this kind of community,” she said, after giving gardener Hien Vinh Nguyen a warm hug. “And I like the fact that I get … things I don’t normally see at the store.”

The garden’s proceeds will be split among five families this year, including Nguyen’s. A former South Vietnamese army officer, he spent 13 years in a Hanoi prison where he grew beans, rice, potatoes and vegetables on the prison farm.

In 1994, he immigrated to Seattle and helped build two community gardens at High Point.

“It’s extra money for the low-income people … and the customers are so happy,” he said. “It’s good for all the residents.”

 

Related Articles:

Urban Farming Sprouts in Seattle: Overlooked nooks and crannies colonized to grow food

 

Urban Agriculture in Seattle:

Longfellow Creek Garden

Growing Washington

Seattle Youth Garden Works

P-Patch Community Gardens

Seattle Tilth

WA Food System Wiki

Veg Seattle

Pick Your Own

Marra Farm

Community Harvest of Southwest Seattle

High Point Market Garden

Seattle Green Map Project

Seattle Farmers Markets

Seattle Urban Farm Company

Urban Garden Residence

Ballard Farmer’s Markets

Common Ground

Laughing Crow Farm

Farmhouse Organics

Eat Local Now!

100 Mile Diet- Sustainable Ballard

Sustainable Communities All Over Puget Sound (SCALLOPS)

Puget Sound School Gardens Collective

Lettuce Link

Growing Food, Growing Community

Seattle Dirt

Seattle Green Schools

Abundant Yards

Community Fruit Tree Harvest

Northwest Harvest

Cultivating Youth

Green Seattle Guide

“The Green Book”

Sustainable West Seattle

I am fascinated in how American culture and changes over time effect how America feels about gardening. Thats why I would love to go to this forum and hear from older generations their ideas.  Adults and youth in your organization are encouraged to participate. Students can even get community service hours by going and taking notes that can be used for organizations. And free seeds?  I know its a bit late in the season, but I’ll never turn down free seeds…  So go and enjoy the light refreshments and soak up some knowledge and experiences.

 

If you’re interested in presenting at the forum you can fill out this form and send it in!

Have fun- I wish I could go!

James Godsil wrote on Community Food Security Coalition listserve

So here is some federal legislation to work for.

H.R.2364 
Title: To promote expanded economic opportunities for farmers and ranchers through local and regional markets, expand access to healthy food in underserved communities, provide access to locally and regionally grown food for schools, institutions, and consumers, and strengthen rural-urban linkages, and for other purposes. 
Sponsor: Rep Blumenauer, Earl [OR-3] (introduced 5/17/2007)      Cosponsors (20) 
Latest Major Action: 7/17/2007 Referred to House subcommittee. Status: Referred to the Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities.


 
5/17/2007–Introduced.  

Local Food and Farm Support Act – Amends the Agricultural Risk Protection Act of 2000 to direct the Secretary of Agriculture to establish a grant program to support value-added agricultural products which shall include a socially disadvantaged farmer and rancher component and may include a small and individual producer grant component.

Directs the Secretary to establish a Family Rancher and Rancher Viability and Innovation Fund.

Amends the Specialty Crops Competitiveness Act of 2004 to direct the Secretary, through the Agricultural Marketing Service, to: (1) establish a grant program for eligible entities to conduct enterprise feasibility studies, including studies of consumer preference; and (2) provide loans and loan guarantees to eligible entities and individual producers to develop processing, distribution, and information infrastructure for locally or regionally produced food.

Amends the Farmers-to-Consumers Direct Marketing Act of 1976 to direct the Secretary to carry out a direct to consumer marketing assistance program to make grants to eligible entities for projects to establish, expand, and promote farmers’ markets and other farmer to consumer direct marketing opportunities.

Extends: (1) the Special Supplemental Nutrition Program for Women, Infants, and Children (WIC) farmers’ market nutrition program; (2) the senior farmers’ market nutrition program; (3) the food stamp community food project program; and (4) the farm-to cafeteria program.

Establishes: (1) the food stamp fruit and vegetable incentive program; and (2) the urban agriculture production program.
H.R.2364 
Title: To promote expanded economic opportunities for farmers and ranchers through local and regional markets, expand access to healthy food in underserved communities, provide access to locally and regionally grown food for schools, institutions, and consumers, and strengthen rural-urban linkages, and for other purposes. 
Sponsor: Rep Blumenauer, Earl [OR-3] (introduced 5/17/2007)      Cosponsors (20) 
Latest Major Action: 7/17/2007 Referred to House subcommittee. Status: Referred to the Subcommittee on Healthy Families and Communities.


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