MONTPELIER — Organic vegetable farmer and independent state Rep. Will Stevens of Shoreham has always sought to widen his horizons when it comes to agriculture.
He did that in a big way this past month during a 10-day trip to Cuba, where he got a first-hand glimpse of how farming is conducted on an island nation with scant resources and without a profit motive.
Stevens was one of six participants in the “Vermont-Cuba Sustainable and Organic Agricultural Exchange Program.” It was a research tour organized by the Vermont Caribbean Institute, aimed at promoting and developing relationships and sustainable projects in organic agriculture, food security, community health and resilience, appropriate technology and land stewardship to “improve human well-being and the health of the environment.”
It was a travel opportunity that intrigued Stevens, who with his wife, Judy, owns and operates Golden Russet Farm in Shoreham. Cuba has been off-limits for American tourism since Fidel Castro came to power more than 50 years ago. Stevens had heard about organic farming in Cuba and how agriculture had to be done on a shoestring due to the directives of the communist regime and as a consequence of the longstanding U.S. trade embargo.
“It’s a highly regulated economy and society,” Stevens, a member of the Vermont House Agriculture Committee, said.
Stevens — who paid his own way — and five other Vermonters headed to Cuba on Feb. 3 for an educational experience that would include seven days in Havana and a few days in the communities of Santa Clara and Trinidad. They visited a half-dozen farms, mostly urban organic gardens known as “organoponicos.” These urban gardens — very small, basic and labor intensive — came to the fore out of necessity around 20 years ago, after the fall of the Soviet Union, noted Stevens. The Soviet Union had been heavily subsidizing Cuba’s agricultural industry through low-cost gasoline and pesticides. But that assistance largely evaporated with the fall of the Iron Curtain, forcing Cubans to reinvent their farming industry with few resources.
“They had to adapt, or die,” he said.
Stevens saw farmers tend to crops with implements that were jerry-rigged or welded together. Since necessity is the mother of invention, the Spartan conditions have forced the Cuban farmers to be more resourceful. Stevens took photos of a farmer who had forced methane from his on-site manure into an air-tight bag, using it to fuel his gas stove. Farmers are breeding livestock that can provide them with milk as well as meat.
He noted that many of the organoponicos engage in vermicomposting. The farmers place their food waste into a trough and add red wiggler worms, which feast on the waste and generate fertile compost for the crops. The primary crops grown on the organoponicos, according to Stevens, were sweet potatoes, green cabbage, beans, beets, tomatoes, lettuce and bok choi.
A U.S. farmer would take that produce to the market in hopes of getting top dollar. Not in Cuba, Stevens said, where there is a different economic paradigm prescribed by the ruling regime.
“Economics for them is the socialist model of ‘Everyone should have something to eat,’” Stevens said.
The Cuban government owns all the land and is trying to get more of it into agricultural production, including areas that are still idle after being abandoned by people who fled the nation during the revolution. The government also regulates and parses out seeds, Stevens said. There are few free enterprise opportunities for farmers, who can count on a wage of around $20 per month, he said. Citizens survive by living frugally in a marketplace with low prices and because the government provides basic necessities such as health care and education, he noted.
While Western society preaches one can always be better or do better, the Cuban culture is more about being grateful for what you have, according to Stevens.
“Their mission was to feed people in a way that was environmentally beneficial and in a way that allows prosperity for everyone,” Stevens said.
The visiting group wasn’t regulated or barred from speaking with anyone during the trip, according to Stevens. And while Cuba has a different culture, climate and political system than Vermont, Stevens said he could see some similarities between the two lands. Both have had to adapt to a scarcity of resources and both have people imbued with a spirit of helping one another.
Stevens said he greatly enjoyed the trip to Cuba and would definitely go back. He hopes that at some point, Cuban farmers can come to Vermont and see how agriculture works in the Green Mountain State. The trip has prompted Stevens to think more about his farming priorities, especially as they relate to workers.
“My take-home message is, ‘It’s about the people,’” Stevens said.
And while governmental relations between the U.S. and Cuba remain frosty, Stevens said most Cubans are looking forward to the day when they will see more Americans coming over to visit.
“They said, ‘Let Americans know we want a normal relationship with them. Let them know we are just people, too,’” Steven said of a common refrain from Cubans he spoke with.
Reporter John Flowers is at [email protected]