Monday, February 15, 2016

2204. Finca Marta: A Successful Agroecological Farm in Cuba

By Fernando Ravsberg, Havana Times, February 11, 12,  and 13, 2016

Fernando Funes at Finca Marta. Photo: Raquel Perez Diaz

The Marta farm is located some 20 km from Havana. The area was dominated by rolling hills of dry, compact, stone-filled earth covered by marabou brush, so one had to be very foolish or totally insane to think an environmentally-friendly and sustainable agriculture initiative could work there.

Four years later – and against all odds – the place has become one of the most productive and ecologically sustainable farmlands, and where the farm workers receive the highest salaries. They produce 60 different types of products and sell these without any intermediaries.

This mad scheme was the brainchild of Fernando Funes and his wife. He left behind agricultural theory (he is an agronomist with a Dutch PhD) and she quit her job at the Melia hotel chain. They tell me it felt like a complete leap of faith, but that they landed on their feet.

It took them 7 months to dig a well, breaking the rock manually, armed only with a crowbar. The first thing they began to sell were mangos, no sooner were they able to grow them after clearing the land of marabou with machetes.

Cuban agriculture has been a curse on the lives of Cubans. During colonial times, it destroyed nature and the lives of hundreds of thousands of slaves. In Republican days, it was sustained by the misery of farmhands and, under socialism, it proved highly unproductive.

I have decided to publish the entirety of my interview with a man who was capable of wedding the latest in science with peasant traditions, in order to secure, on a small plot of land, a kind of prosperity that is vital to the nation, at a time when the crisis affecting agriculture appears endemic.

How does one move from theoretical to practical agriculture?
Fernando Funes: I see it as a kind of leap of faith, because theory is locked up in a drawer somewhere. Theory leads you to understand the world piecemeal, it tries to simplify things as much as possible to explain life. Practice, in contrast, is multi-dimensional, multidirectional and complex.

One of my interests in developing this project was to be able to understand agriculture from within, through its own contradictions and challenges. In the 90s, I did research on integrated systems, I believed I was thinking holistically, in a multifaceted way, but I also realized there was a huge gap between the study of agriculture as a biophysical process and an understanding of socio-economic processes.
Natural fertilizer

What does the project consist of, how would you summarize it?
FF: We’re trying to demonstrate the validity of the theory through practice. It is an attempt to develop alternatives to improve the foundations of agriculture, with a view to improving the quality of life of the population, particularly in the countryside.

How many hectares of land do you work?
FF: The farm has 8 hectares, but our bees go out exploring 3 km beyond that. A farm’s boundaries are often imaginary.

What results have you seen?
FF: They’ve been very satisfactory. We’ve seen the child born, crawl, walk and run. We’ve cared for this child tenaciously as a family, because, without a family-based approach, it can’t be done. It’s been so from the beginning, when this was an area of wildland. We worked together because we believe we’re doing something for the good of the family and society.

Then came the farm workers, and, in a way, they’ve become part of the family. It began as two crazy people digging a well and we now have 16 motivated people, who are interested in more than the money they earn. They see the constant improvement and innovation here.

What crops do you grow?
FF: It’s a diversified system. It includes fruit trees, cattle breeding, greens and assorted vegetables. The latter has become a key measure of the value of what we’re doing. The difference between traditional agriculture and what we do is the link to the market. To satisfy people’s expectations, you have to value what you do, you have to sell things and make money.

Our profits are destined to different ends: reinvesting in the farm, protecting the environment and creating better conditions for workers.
Rocks collected from the farm land were used in construction. Photo: Raquel Pérez Diaz

How much do you reinvest in the farm?
FF: In our first year, we couldn’t reinvest anything, but now we reinvest around 30 % of profits. Today, for instance, we’re raising worker salaries every 6 months, as we increase production and begin to sell more. We pay the social security of all our employees and a one-day vacation every month.

I imagine you also earn enough to support your family.
FF: When my wife tells you she left her job at a hotel chain, she’s telling you how sustainable the farm is.

We’re developing different areas of production. Beekeeping gives us good income. Beef and milk give us good income and also the milk the family and workers consume. Cows also produce manure and we use that to produce biogas to run the kitchen and cover all of the farm’s energy needs. We even have a biogas fridge, and we also use the gas to light lamps when there’s a power cut. Thirteen animals produce more manure than we need to produce the gas. We pump water using solar-powered pumps. We’re trying to close the cycle to become fully self-sufficient.

What factors should one bear in mind if one wants to set up an efficient and sustainable agricultural system?

FF: There are three basic elements: the nutrient cycle, the energy cycle and the water cycle. In general terms, however, productive systems are not much integrated, they’re merely extractive. They try to get the most out of every cycle. Most farming systems don’t have the capacity to capture energy (solar, biomass or wind). So they rely on fossil fuels and synthetic fertilizers, which make the process more expensive, dependent on the outside and unable to grow from within.
The well was dug by hand.  Photo: Raquel Pérez Diaz.

How do you solve the problem of nutrients in a soil as poor as Cuba’s?
FF: This farm has one of the worst soils in Cuba. My father thought I was insane. He’d say to me: you’ve got the least fertile soils, the place is too rocky, there are far too many hills and no water. I faced every possible setback in terms of farming but I believe you can create paradise anywhere in Cuba, a highly efficient production system.

It is not enough to have the resources, you have to design a system that will allow you to capture them, transform them and use them. In the case of nutrients, it is a very long road. The first step was to clear the marabou from the land, identify the area where we’d work, the most fertile soils, the most manageable, the closest, like the green garden.

You have to know what crops draw the most nutrients from the earth and complement for that. We found several cow farms in the vicinity with 20 years’ worth of manure, and we’re buying it from them. They’re happy, we’re happy.

We have a forage area were we dump the remains of the biodigestor. This way, we increase our productive capacity as we fertilize the forage area. We place the stuff in tanks and transport it manually. It may look precarious, but precariousness is sometimes the road to prosperity. Around 150 years ago, people in Holland would keep the animals inside the house to keep warm.

How are your experiences being made known?
Fernando Funes: My colleagues and my dad were worried because they felt I was going to become a recluse out in the sticks. However, in these past four years, I’ve seen that the media coverage of the project is far more widely divulged than the academic articles I used to publish. Some 1,200 people had read my scientific articles, but thousands have gone by the farm. There’s been a lot of coverage and we are being given more and more opportunities to speak about what we do. This year, we started offering a series of workshops for children, involving scientists and locals. We’re going to design distribution systems for the region and we’re already working on a local development project. We want to put those who live here in contact with local and national authorities and with NGOs and trading companies. Combining these four actors is the key to sustainable development.

One of the most bureaucratized ministries in Cuba is the Ministry of Agriculture. How do you deal with them?
FF: My philosophy is that many obstacles are imaginary. There’s no obstacle one cannot overcome with will. When I got here, no one paid any attention. This was an abandoned place, and I dug a hole in the rock for 7 months. This well became a metaphor, a symbol of learning. It showed the determination with which we were willing to do things. They’d tell us we were crazy, that there was no water here. Today, we have more water than we need to run the whole farm. We did this and brought prosperity, because prosperity doesn’t come to you on its own, you have to go and look for it, like water in a well. Bureaucracies around the world hold back many processes but one has to have enough mental freedom to understand bureaucracy can be overcome. You have to seep in through the cracks and show, in practice, that bureaucracy is dysfunctional.

Agriculture, however, relies on the supplies which that same bureaucracy denies farmers.
FF: We’re not looking to get supplies from them, see, because the chemicals they use are no good to us in our organic system. We use local resources and, this way, enrich the process much more. Now, we’re going to receive a donation from the Japanese embassy, as they’ve realized the impact we’re having. We’re going to import the things we need to continue growing from Mexico. We’re going to buy a windmill to pump water around the farm and a device for making furrows. We’d been doing the furrows manually till now, but, if we hadn’t done them this way, we wouldn’t have the support of Japan today.
Fernando Funes and his wide Claudia Alvarez run the farm that is located 20 kilometers outside Havana.
Photo: Raquel Pérez Diaz.
Do you feel people in Cuba would be willing to head to the countryside?
FF: I’m aware that not many people are willing to “dig the well,” but, once they see it dug, they realize that it is possible. Moving to the countryside must be a free decision based on a person’s wish. To achieve this, we need a new rural environment that connects the city and countryside better, such that life in the countryside can be revalued as healthier, as empowerment and reward. The Cuban revolution has left us ethical and cultural values that aren’t going to disappear, just as what was produced by Cuban culture before the revolution hasn’t disappeared. We also want to sow the seeds of a new way of doing things in the region.

Is large-scale, organic agriculture feasible in Cuba?

FF: Well, we’ve been struggling to achieve this for 20 years and, today, we’re less ecological than before. The economic crisis brought about a rebirth, as a result of the difficulties people learned to produce through their own efforts. But we’ve been losing all this as the economic situation has improved, because there hasn’t been a resolute enough policy or mechanisms to encourage such practices. The mentality of farmers and agriculture officials is also based on an industrial, single-crop model, something we’ve been shouldering for nearly 400 years. We need a change of mindset to adopt a healthier and more varied diet, not by decree but by developing these ideas among the people.

To be able to maintain this farm do you have to sell at high prices?
FF: You have to sell and value the farm work. The agricultural system is linked to the market and to people living in the countryside that do not want to live precariously. For us to sell is a fundamental element, there is a demand that we have to focus on. When we arrived there was nothing to sell. As soon as the mangoes began to start producing we began by selling the fruit at the door of our home in the city. We did the same with the avocados when they began to have a harvest. With coconuts we started making milk and also sold shelled and whole coconuts. Later we got into beekeeping. One hive became five and today there are 75. Recently we sold almost a thousand US dollars of honey. The more income we had the more workers we could hire and were able to achieve better results. Then we made beds and planted vegetables. I developed a mixed product basket and went to restaurants in Havana and they began to buy from us. We reinvest and now we have two hectares of planted vegetable beds on terraces and supply 25 restaurants in Havana and 10 families. During the year we sell more than 60 different products. As for prices, the government must recognize that there are different market segments. They should allow the connection between the farm and commerce sectors to flow freely. Too many rules or barriers for these mechanisms limit what produce reaches the consumer. Tomatoes do not reach consumers because they hit these barriers and spoil.

The nursery at Finca Marta. Photo: Raquel Pérez Diaz.

How much production is lost in the fields or after harvest?
FF: My research shows that about 50% of what is produced in Cuba is lost because we have bad harvest systems, poor storage capacity, we are not able to process the products, transportation systems are weak and the sale and distribution does not work well. We are faced with the dilemma of producing more or improving the chain to bring what is produced to the consumer. You have to make considerable effort so that what is produced is not lost. Producing more in these circumstances implies lost energy and hurts the morale of farmers because even the most materialistic peasants suffer when he/she sees what they have grown lost.

What is the relationship with the consumer you are trying to create?
FF: We want to create a system to sell products to 50 families on a subscription basis. We want these families to also have access to environmental education, food preparation information and the nutritional properties of our products. We want to promote consumer empowerment, creating consumer cooperatives. The families will place an order for the coming delivery and we will sell the surplus production on the open market. We want to establish a two-way commitment between consumers and the producer. Such relationships exist since the 1970s in the United States; it’s called community supported agriculture.

What can be done to stop so much loss of farm production?
FF: It’s about creating a link between farmers and consumers. We must develop mechanisms; here we too are learning. We lose less than 10% of what we produce and we value it more than other farms. It is precisely because there is a link between producers and consumers. The market demands and we supply according to a study of the demand. The consumer is the one who has to give the initial information and you produce in terms of what people want.

But how can the problem of intermediaries raising prices by up to 1000% be resolved?
FF: Speculation can be reduced when there are better relations between producers and consumers. But to achieve this you have to understand the market and restrictions must be relaxed. Many people believe the issue is reducing the prices paid to the farmer but I don’t think that’s the case. The problem is not that the products are expensive but that people do not have money to pay for them. People working in the fields need to feel that their living standards improves. These are people who even come here to work in heavy rain because they see their lives improve, they have been able to put two windows in their home, for example.

How do you deal with the problem of employee theft?

FF: It’s a reality and there’s a long way to go. People have material and spiritual deprivation. Around 40 persons have worked here and we had let go around 25. We put a filter, society needs a filter. What we are living in Finca Marta is what we want for our country and we do not want bad people.

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